A Ghost Story in the Ghost Town of Jerome, Arizona

Cover of "Shadows in Jerome"

Cover of Shadows in Jerome

Without a doubt, Curtis D. Vick’s Shadows in Jerome (2003) is a terrific read for acquiring a sense of place and history. Jerome, Arizona is a popular tourist destination, a town that plummeted from a population high of 15,000 in its copper-mining heyday to a low of 50. It was reborn with the help of artists who re-populated the mountainside city. Vick gets the details of the current town and its history right.

A couple—a freelance photographer who has picked up in his travels a young woman who likes the feel of wind in her hair—enter Jerome in their Volkswagen convertible “Bug,” and intend to settle for a month while he takes pictures of the interesting buildings and places and she works as a waitress. Mike meets a retired photographer at the local bar, Cyrus, who takes him under his wing and provides an opportunity for the two of them to review history and stories of the “ghost town.” Ghost is the key word here, for unbeknownst to the trio, the ghost of Madeleine Morgan haunts one of the old houses, tortured by the untimely death of her younger sister Angie in an accident when the car she was driving missed a curve on the dangerous roads of Jerome. Was it truly an accident?

The two stories in the novel—the contemporary one and the one set in the early part of the 20th century—intertwine, even to the point of Madeline and Mike having a sexual encounter. In fact, there are fairly graphic sexual scenes in the novel as well as horror. All of the characters are in some turmoil. Will they find peace at the end? Or will Mike and Julia be victims of an agonized and vengeful spirit.

The town of Jerome rests on the steep hillside of Mingus Mountain; sometimes, it didn’t rest at all as the dynamiting of the open pit copper mine sent some buildings—like the jail—more than 200 feet down the hillside. Tourists visiting the ghost town will definitely exercise their calf muscles walking up and down steep stairs that connect the streets. Houses and stores may have a front entrance on one street and a basement entrance on a lower street. The road—Highway 89A—which winds from Jerome to the territorial capital of Prescott is breathtaking, sometimes literally for those who are acrophobic.

The state historical park of Jerome focuses on the mine itself, but in the “up” town area, shops, restaurants, and wineries dominate. In fact, it was at the window of a closed bookstore that I discovered Shadows in Jerome and ordered it for my Kindle. As is so often the case with self-published novels, a good editor would have been helpful. Vick has another Arizona novel, The Outdweller, set in the Superstition Mountains. For readers who prefer their history in a package of fiction, it would be hard to go wrong with Shadows in Jerome.


The Heirs of Tony Hillerman

Aimee and David Thurlo’s Blackening Song (1995) introduces Navajo FBI agent Ella Clah, who returns home from Los Angeles when her father is cruelly and ritualistically murdered–perhaps by Skinwalkers.

Lizard on red rock

Those familiar with Tony Hillerman‘s Chee and Leaphorn novels will find the Thurlos’ work immediately recognizable. Clah’s brother, Clifford, is a tribal medicine man, but he’s also the primary suspect in his father’s death and as a result is hiding out from the police. Ella’

s status as an FBI agent makes her suspect among her own people, the Dine.  She’s been away, but the behavior of a rival, Agent Blalock, who is disrespectful of traditional ways, and is termed “FB-eyes” by the reservation residents, makes Ella’s friends and neighbors wonder if she’s no longer truly part of the Navajo Nation.

The level of gore in this mystery is often gruesome. Still, the family relationships of Ella, her mother–a particularly strong character–and her brother and his family are admirable. A high school admirer, Wilson Joe, who is also Clifford’s best friend, seems interested in renewing his attention to an oblivious Ella. But romance takes a back seat to any number of shoot-outs and pick-up truck chases across arroyos, mesas, and canyons. And, Ella must decide if she is truly “L.A. Woman” as she’s called on the reservation or if her home is in the wide open spaces of the desert.

While the novel is not a sophisticated narrative and some mystical events strain credulity, it kicked off a successful series, and Ella Clah is the heroine of at least a dozen novels set on the Navajo Nation–which extends into both Arizona and New Mexico. I found Blackening Song at the John Wesley Powell Museum in Page, Arizona, and it’s an atmospheric read for a seemingly bleak countryside that also holds great beauty.

Light beam at Antelope Slot Canyon

Murder in the Red Rock Country of Sedona, Arizona

Verde Canyon Railway

It’s said that the term posh is an acronym derived from sea travel from Britain to India, a mnemonic for “portside out/starboard home,” meaning, book a ship cabin on the left for the outward voyage and on the right coming home for the best views. I was reminded of that advice when on the Verde Canyon Railway, sitting in a first-class car, the Sycamore, on the portside. As it turned out, starboard would have been the better choice for views of the canyon, river, and historical sites. The “port” side was usually a rock wall on the journey from Clarkdale to Perkinsville.

Still, the journey provided the opportunity to finish a J. A. Jance novel set in nearby Sedona, Trial by Fire (2009), which features Ali Reynolds, a former LA reporter who has returned to her hometown following the murder of her estranged husband (leaving her independently wealthy, which is always helpful to a narrator). In

Cover of "Trial by Fire: A Novel of Suspe...

Cover of Trial by Fire: A Novel of Suspense

the previous four novels, Reynolds manages to help solve several crimes, and some of those characters (but not the criminals) reappear in this tale. The set-up is that she has been hired on a temporary basis to handle media relations for the county police station, which introduces not only Sedona but also Cottonwood, the Village of Oak Creek, and other towns that the traveler may visit.

Reynolds helps solve an arson fire in which a woman is critically injured and a Klee painting is destroyed. Along the way, she encounters Sister Anselm, termed the “angel of death” as she functions as a patient advocate for those who most likely will not survive. This thriller includes disguises, car chases, and unethical journalists.

Jance is a best-selling author, known primarily for her Joanna Brady mysteries, and Ali Reynolds doesn’t seem to come up to the mark in comparison. Still, this novel may be a guilty pleasure for reading set in the beautiful red rock country of Sedona, Arizona—although perhaps more guilty than pleasure.

Sedona: Red Rock Country


Bernie Madoff’s Great-Grandfather (circa 1823, Honduras)

A fool and his money are soon parted.

A sucker is born every minute.

Swamp in Honduras

You can fool all of the people some of the time . . .

In a nonfiction exposé, David Sinclair through masterful research reveals Sir Gregor MacGregor for the confidence trickster that he truly was, pulling off one of the greatest scams of all time, in The Land that Never Was (2003). Reading much like a novel, this work explains how McGregor invented a land, Poyais, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras and so thoroughly duped bankers, settlers, and soldiers, that hundreds traveled from England, but more particularly Scotland, to reap profits from a land of milk and honey, portrayed as already having opera houses and theatres! MacGregor created a grandiose scheme, complete with a guidebook A Sketch of the Mosquito Shore authored by Thomas Strangeways, no less (the second edition was by Mr. Goodluck—did no one see the sick humor?), maps, proclamations (addressed to citizens of Poyais—Dear Poyers), military uniforms, and flags.

Each new development seems unbelievable, but the gullible sign on, including investors. The tragedy is that hundreds of the settlers perish when they reach Poyais, finding a swamp, no shelter, and fetid water. The result? Disease and death. MacGregor, who was early in his career in the British Army, had also joined various South American liberation movements and was familiar with General Miranda and Simon Bolivar.

This is a page-turner. Does MacGregor get his just desserts? Or do people believe that he was himself a victim? Until Sinclair research unmasks the scoundrel, MacGregor was actually portrayed in the Dictionary of National Biography more closely to his manufactured persona than to the trickster that swindled a nation (or two). One thing is for sure: MacGregor was a master of creativity, concerned about the design of the braid on the Army of Poyais’ uniforms. The Cazique of Poyais created a mythical nation, indulged in self delusion, and felt no remorse apparently for the hundreds who died as a result.


The Summer We Came to Life–in Honduras

Chick lit: check.

View from Cayos Cochinos, Honduras

Beach read: check

Honduras lit: kinda

Deborah Cloyed’s 2011 novel, The Summer We Came to Life, focuses on four childhood friends, but one of them—Mina–has died. The narrator, Samantha, is starting an artist residency in Honduras as the novel opens, but she is still grieving over the loss of her close friend, taking solace in Mina’s journals that she inherited. Both Mina and Samantha are without mothers—one having died and one having departed the family—and the two are hosted on summer trips by two other single-mother families, thus creating the Vacation Club. The two mothers—Jesse and Lynette (whose daughters Isabel and Kendra complete the childhood quartet) feel a sense of responsibility to all four girls and treat them to exotic locales to teach them that there is more to life than suburbia.

A post-Mina Vacation Club trip starts out shakily with Kendra AWOL as she’s discovered that she’s pregnant, but her perfect boyfriend insists that she have an abortion. Samantha isn’t really sure she’s ready to spend time with her close friends, and she’s debating a proposal to marry a famous French director, Remy. Jesse is falling in love with Mina’s father, Arshan, who is her bridge partner. Lynette is reunited with her husband Cornell after a decade absence when he was with another woman.

The agenda for the Vacation Club is about revealing past lives and secrets. In the beach house rented in Tela, Jesse opens up about her early life as a Vogue model and disastrous marriage to a Panamanian whose family tries to deport her without her daughter. Lynette and Cornell recount how difficult it was to be an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia. Arshan weighs in with his own story of the revolution in Iran, coupled with the loss of his son and wife. And Samantha fantasizes about fabulous sex with Remy, but worries if the relationship is truly marriage-worthy. A healthy dose of mysticism pervades the story.

And what about Honduras? Some information about the Garifuna, a group blended from former slaves and Caribs, is thrown in. Likewise, the erratic driving of Honduran drivers is profiled, and Tegucigalpa, the capital city (moved from the coast where it was in O. Henry’s time due to pirates) gets some mention since Samantha’s apartment is located there. Cloyed spent six months in Honduras on a photographic assignment, so she is familiar with the landscape. But Honduras really serves primarily as exotic locale rather than being integral to the story itself.

I suppose there’s a large readership for the trials and tribulations of the 29 year old woman, but I must admit that after my initial excitement of finding a recent novel set in my vacation destination of Honduras, I much preferred the 19th century writing of O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings and the memoir of Six Days on the Hurricane Deck of a Mule.