The Territory Book Review – One Courageous Woman Battles a Cartel’s Army
The greatest and most frustrating element of modern mysteries lies with the hero. It’s a rule as old as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot: the detective must be quirky yet smart. Otherwise, the story becomes imbalanced since readers won’t care about the sleuth.
The 2011 mystery by first-time author Tricia Fields entitled The Territory (Book 1 of the Josie Gray Mystery series) manages to create a unique yet relatable detective hero. This one has the added advantage of being a woman in a job most people expect a man to fill. Even better, the action gives her a highly personal stake in the dilemma she faces. When the story focuses on her, it works well. The problem is that big chunks of the action go off on tangents with characters not as important as her. Even though this does not destroy the story it weakens the narrative.
Artemis, Texas (population 2,500) sits uncomfortably close to both a ghost town and the Rio Grande. Into this sleepy town barges Mexican drug runners, whose turf battles have turned both sides of the Rio Grande into a war zone. The fiercely independent townsmen would rather take the law into their own hands than get help from police chief Josie Gray, even when they’re up against a cartel’s private army.
Responding to a shootout in a local operating room by the drug cartel hit men, Josie arrests one and kills another. Josie finds her life at risk for doing her job. She gets no help from Artemis’ ambitious, arrogant mayor, who would rather see her quit. And then the town’s self-appointed protector of the Second Amendment is murdered and his cache of weapons disappears.
Josie has no natural allies in this world of enemies. To make the situation worse, her estranged mother shows up from Indiana and expects Josie to put her up. Worst of all, the hit men invade her home to deliver a message directly from the drug lord whose business she is interfering with. Josie loves the harshly beautiful landscape of her dry, dusty hometown but she has to find a way to restore peace, both for Artemis and for herself.
One of the great virtues of The Territory is the matter-of-fact way it captures the current border issues. In a small town that can look like a police state convention, Artemis tries not to lose its way. Josie appreciates the town on its own terms; her status allows us to see it to best effect as well. Fields gets this sense of the slow rhythms of small-town life just right. Considering that the author lives in a log cabin with her State Trooper husband in a small Indiana farm, she’s in a unique position to draw upon her real life experiences to paint the proper fictional picture.
Despite this attention to detail, the book’s flaws make long stretches of it less compelling than they should be. The biggest problem is the over-reliance on secondary characters. More than once action set piece plays out with Josie playing a decidedly secondary role (or none at all). This has the unfortunate effect of making her less compelling than she should be. It can even make readers wonder if she will come up with a solution for the town’s dilemma or if one will fall into her lap.
This situational weakness spills over into Josie’s personal life. Her dealings with her mother are especially mousy. She deals with the older woman without ever personally seeing her even though she spends a good deal of the story in Artemis. Perhaps Fields was trying to show a heroine who could be strong without looking for a fight. I find the best heroes of both sexes avoid fights when possible, but do not shrink from them when necessary. On this count Josie fails a bit.
In spite of these complaints The Territory manages to satisfy at times. Since this is the first book in the series, I like to believe she becomes a more active character over time. For now, though, I’d tell Fields it was a nice first try and better luck next time. Her fourth book in the series, Firebreak, is slated for a March 3, 2015 release in both hardcover and Amazon Kindle versions.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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