One of the things that I don’t like about the Christmas season is the overstimulation. There’s too much going on. Things get past me, particularly new books. One that did not escape my attention, however, is a jewel of a mystery titled NIGHTS OF THE RED MOON by Milton T. Burton. The author of two previous stand-alone works, Burton infuses his latest with sharp characterization, dry wit, and a complex plot that makes it a must-read for mystery aficionados during any time of year.
NIGHTS OF THE RED MOON is told in the voice of Bo Handel, the long-time sheriff of Caddo County, Texas. Handel, whose sexagenarian status is an asset rather than a liability for his job, is a good fit with the relatively small county he is charged with protecting. He has been around the block often enough to know how to handle the good and bad citizens he encounters, and his occasional folksy and frequently hilarious colloquialisms both demonstrate and belie his canny and sharp powers of observation and intelligence. He is, in other words, the right man for the job.
Such is borne out when the wayward estranged wife of the Reverend Bobby Joe Twiller, a popular local minister, is dumped at room temperature on the front lawn of the church over which he presides. The arrival of a pair of FBI agents upon the scene indicates to Handel that there is much more going on than marital discord; indeed, the trail that Handel follows is littered with losers, grifters, dopers, Mafia hit men and exotic prostitutes. It appears that almost anyone directly or indirectly connected with the late Mrs. Twiller was dead bent on breaking one commandment or another. However, while there is no dearth of suspects with respect to who might have killed Mrs. Twiller, Handel is as good at eliminating them as he is at honing in on them. Although he doesn’t always color within the lines while he is doing his job, he still keeps everyone but the bad guys reasonably happy.
Handel is also very good at multi-tasking. He exhibits good taste, if questionable judgment, in bedding one of his deputies on the QT and keeping a bottle of spirits stored in his desk, even as he blackmails a local county commissioner into giving his sheriff’s department everything he wants or needs, all the while keeping the man on friendly terms. The result is an engaging, even charming protagonist who gets the job done without extraordinary feats of derring-do, instead utilizing a network of snitches, powers of observation, and a dogged investigative style. The result is an engaging, even addicting novel that will keep you reading past your curfew.
I have no idea what plans Burton has for Handel beyond NIGHTS OF THE RED MOON, but I would welcome a series set in Caddo County with open door and arms. I actually found myself missing Handel after reading the last page of this book, something that doesn’t happen to me very often. Part of the appeal is Handel’s age; I am at the point where I live by the dictum that age and guile beats youth and inexperience. But it’s more than that. Burton’s delineation of Handel is pitch- and picture-perfect, from his appreciation of women of seasoned years (and for all the right reasons) to his quiet humor. It may be Christmas, but don’t get so busy that you forget to read NIGHTS OF THE RED MOON.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 12, 2011