The Sun: A Mystery
By J. Courtney White
346 pp. Early Hour Press – Oct. 2018. $12.99.
J. Courtney White’s The Sun is at once an entertaining murder mystery and an earnest look at the many crises confronting the American West. As it sweeps us into a compelling tale of suspense and intrigue, it also teaches us about the dangers that anthropogenic threats like real estate development, fossil fuel production and chemical pesticide use pose to both natural ecosystems and human health. The world of the novel feels real, its characters and plot locations meticulously realized. The answer to its core mystery, however, remains deliciously elusive until the book’s finale. A longtime environmental advocate with a focus on fostering land health, White has previously written several nonfiction books. The Sun is his first foray into fiction, and it’s a solid debut.
The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Bryce Miller, is a young pediatric oncologist from Boston who has just inherited a fortune in the form of an estate in rural New Mexico. Her uncle recently passed, leaving her an entire working ranch with 1,000 head of cattle, a majestic log home and extensive fine wine and art collections. The name of the ranch is The Sun, and it’s a historic and much-sought-after property—just about everyone in the local community of Alameda wants to buy it. Bryce barely knew her uncle and has no idea why he willed her The Sun, but she has taken a one-week trip to New Mexico with the intent of getting it sold. She has no idea that in visiting The Sun for the first time, she’s about to wander into a crime scene.
Prior to Bryce’s arrival in New Mexico, the ranch foreman calls her saying he urgently needs to speak with her. When she comes to meet him, he’s nowhere to be found and his assistant is missing. With the help of a concerned neighbor, Bryce locates the foreman’s body. She also quickly learns of possible motives for his murder. As she meets with potential suitors for the ranch, she gets some bad reports about the foreman. It seems he threatened some folks who want The Sun to become an upscale housing development. He was also accused of vandalizing assets owned by an oil and gas company that aims to drill natural gas wells on The Sun. The author gives us a raft of possible motives and keeps the real one a genuine surprise.
Besides the two mentioned already, Bryce has four other suitors for The Sun, each with a drastically different vision for it. One wants it to become a nature preserve, free of cattle and other livestock. Another hopes to put up a casino resort. There’s also a bizarre doomsday cult whose congregants gather underground like so many vampires, and who want to make The Sun’s premises their permanent home. (White deftly milks this latter group for comic relief.) The final suitor is a shadowy business magnate who travels by helicopter and wears a dramatic trench coat that looks to Bryce like something out of a Matrix movie. His intentions are opaque but he seems ill-disposed to take no for an answer.
The more Bryce learns about her uncle and what he wanted for The Sun, the harder her decision becomes. Her uncle’s dream was to have The Sun be a model ranch for producing healthy food while also treating the land properly. It becomes increasingly clear to Bryce that choosing any of the options currently in front of her would mean selling out that dream.
A new line of tension begins when Bryce begins to think she’s being followed. On her second day in Alameda, she returns to the ranch to find the front door ajar, a light left on and a dresser drawer left open. Soon after that, someone starts repeatedly setting off the motion sensor alarm at the ranch’s entrance gate. Threatening notes begin appearing on Bryce’s car and other property. Someone rides her bumper on a winding country road, then shoots through the front of her uncle’s house multiple times while she’s inside. Bryce eventually bests her stalker, and in so doing impresses the local community with her valor and quick thinking.
The murder of The Sun’s foreman, the whereabouts of his assistant and the identity of Bryce’s harasser aren’t the only enigmas confounding Bryce; there are also several puzzles related to her uncle. Bryce goes from knowing almost nothing about him to gaining an increasingly clear picture of who he was, how he came into the fortune that allowed him to purchase The Sun and why he left it to her. Yet every discovery raises more questions, for Bryce’s uncle proves to have been a man of contradictions. He was concerned about the environment but built a luxury dream home on The Sun. He possessed an arsenal of guns despite being an ardent liberal. He was passionate about preserving wildlife habitat but had plans to build a hotel on his property. I have a feeling we’ll be learning much more about this man in the sequels to this book that White has planned.
In setting his story in Alameda, White is following the age-old dictum that you should write about what you know. White has long lived in Santa Fe, which is less than an hour’s drive from Alameda. The level of detail that went into his fictional version of Alameda speaks to his familiarity with the region. The author also nicely captures the rugged, wide-open spaces of the American West in general. One description took me back to a wondrous vista I often spied while exploring the woods near my home as a boy. “In the distance beyond the river,” recounts the narrator, “loomed a long band of flat-topped hills and above them a dark mass of forested mountains, looking like a lost continent.”
The novel’s geographical milieu isn’t the only thing that comes directly from White’s life experience. Many of White’s concerns as an activist show up as themes in The Sun. Central to both White’s activism and the premise of his novel is the ideal of promoting working landscapes that are ecologically and economically resilient. Two decades ago, White co-founded the Santa Fe-based nonprofit Quivira Coalition, whose mission is to bridge divides among ranchers, conservationists, scientists, public land managers and others with stakes in the continued health of the land. Among White’s cast of fictional characters are several who represent these various interests. However, White is never heavy-handed about incorporating his ideology into his narrative; the themes arise naturally and are rightly subordinated to the story.
It’s fitting that Bryce is a cancer doctor. Just as cancer involves abnormal, uncontrolled growth in the body, so too are the ecological crises of our time products of unbridled growth. Bryce is used to helping fight cancer in people. Now, through her decision about the future of The Sun, she’s in a position to combat the spread of a human-caused cancer upon the natural landscape.
The Sun leaves a number of its mysteries unresolved, and yet we don’t feel dissatisfied by the loose ends. Rather, we look forward to seeing them taken up again in subsequent novels. The first of these, ominously titled Sun Down, is set to come out later this year. I’m pleased to say that the first book has given us a premise, setting and characters more than engaging enough to propel us through a good many future outings.
Teaser photo credit: By David Herrera from Albuquerque, NM, Bernalillo – Wheeler Peak groupUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0