Death on a Desert Hillside by Gary George

four stars

desertGary George’s Death on a Desert Hillside is a fast-paced murder mystery, set in 1961, which follows Lieutenant Carlos “Horse” Cabellaro of the San Bernardino County Sherriff’s department and his investigation into the baffling deaths of Caleb and Eunice Clovis, found shot to death in their decrepit shack on the outskirts of Smoke Tree, a small town on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. As Horse unravels the mystery of the Clovises last hours on earth, the reader is introduced to a variety of interesting characters, including “Chemehuevi” Joe Medrano, who helps Horse find the bodies while tracking a pack of feral dogs, and Willy Gibson, a man badly injured while serving his country during World War II, often the butt of some of the town’s worst elements, but fiercely defended and protected by Horse. In fact, while the reader wants to know who murdered the Clovises and why, the other characters and their stories are just as fascinating, such as the corrupt and violent local police force and a menacing peeping Tom, as well as a burgeoning romance between one of Horse’s deputies and a local schoolteacher.

George has not just written an interesting and captivating mystery, but created a place that readers will want to revisit. The town itself, and the surrounding sparse but intense beauty of the desert become almost another character in the story, and George’s descriptions of this setting are as compelling as the characters he has created. George’s creation, however, although beautiful, is not idyllic. He also engages with some of the darker elements of the setting, such as the effects of the wars of the not-too-distant past, through the characters of Horse, a Korean war vet, as well as characters like Willy. A subplot involving the racial tensions of Smoke Tree, populated by Latinos and whites, reveals the prejudices of the time and previews what will come to be a major focal point of the United States of the 1960s. How Horse and the residents of Smoke Tree will meet and deal with these issues is just one of many reasons the reader will look forward to returning to Smoke Tree time and again.

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