The Drum Within by James R. Scarantino, Midnight Ink, 351 pages
Santa Fe Police Department detective Denise Aragon is not having an easy night of it. She and her partner have responded to a call about a dead young woman in a parking area up toward the ski basin. No sooner do they begin their work than a call comes in to drop everything and head back to town: The wife of a notoriously aggressive local attorney has just been found dead, and in particularly horrible circumstances.
Before she knows it, Aragon is in close pursuit of a possible murderer, things are heating up unpleasantly, and we’re not even halfway through the night — or very many pages into James R. Scarantino’s City Different-set mystery novel, The Drum Within.
Soon venal officials, competing counselors, and an acclaimed artist whose work teeters between hype and hypocrisy all help embroil Aragon and her colleagues in a whirlpool of obsession and angst, with multiple crimes weaving together puzzlingly. One thing is certain: Aragon will dig out the truth if possible, no matter who or what is in the way.
A local, Aragon is one tough cookie — though call her that to her face and you might find a heap of pain coming right along. Her hair is cut short to evade possible trouble in street fights, and on upper-body day at the gym she bench presses 183 pounds in three sets of 15 reps. She has a major jones for Blake’s Lotaburger, she brown-noses no one, and she is determined to do her duty, even when it might bring her into conflict with the powers that be. Especially with the powers that be.
For what amounts to a debut novel — an earlier, unpublished Scarantino work was acclaimed in the Southwest Writers Workshop International Writing Competition — The Drum Within keeps many ducks in tidy rows through a maze of gritty encounters, bitter confrontations, and some very clever red herrings. At that, Scarantino, of Port Townsend, Washington, should know whereof he writes. He has been a prosecutor, defense attorney, and investigative reporter before turning to the mystery genre, and his writing has very few ragged edges.
Print and media journalists do not always come off very kindly in this work, by the way. But then, neither do judges, attorneys, or government officials. The pretentious gratin of Santa Fe’s arch art scene gets some wicked and apropos smacks as well.
Though Aragon is supposed to be the protagonist — the book’s publicity says The Drum Within is “A Denise Aragon Novel #1” — Scarantino brings in many multiple viewpoints early on. The result is the kind of novel in which the reader is a participant through confidences but never an omniscient one: I found myself pop-eyed in surprise as the plot worked itself out. But the book never overreaches; everything that occurs ultimately makes sense, which is one of the severest tests of a mystery novel.
For a Santa Fean, it’s fun to follow the plot along as it takes the characters throughout downtown, up into the Hyde Park area, off into the rich north hills, over onto the west and south sides, in and out of police stations and courthouses — not to mention up near Glorieta, off into the near-trackless wilds around Grants, and on a gruesome detour down near Socorro. With Aragon as a companion, the trip is worth it. — Craig A. Smith
James R. Scarantino reads from “The Drum Within” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 24, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226).