by Ben Rehder
The second Blanco Country mystery. Game warden John Marlin is again drawn reluctantly into a homicide investigation. It starts quirkily enough and in his wheelhouse: a drought has made two prominent local men, Emmett Slayton, crusty old rancher (with loveable bumbling would-be crook hillbillies Billy Don and Red from the previous book working for him), and Sal Mameli, an ex-mafioso in the witness protection program, compete for the suddenly in-demand cedar brush-cutting business; Mameli and his nasty son are willing to turn violent to get the monopoly. Meanwhile, there are reports of a beautiful blonde anti-hunting activist pretending to seduce hunters and then vandalizing their gear. But when a hunter ends up shot to death, with one of John’s hunting buddies the prime suspect, things turn grim. John is forced to take a hand when the suspect grabs a hostage and demands that the game warden help clear his name; with the sexy activist now on his side, he digs for a motive while trying to forget Beth, his separated girlfriend.
This is a briskly paced, amusing, silly, and quite over-the-top ride, with a rather crowded cast of dozens, more than a few plots burning at once, and a handful of twists. Some of the characters are unfortunate caricatures (Sal’s dialogue, peppered with “dis” and “dat” and references to New Jersey, is poorly rendered and gets tiring, Inga the activist is a one-note fun sexy hippie chick type), but a core group of fleshed-out principals are sympathetic and multi-faceted. The mystery, hidden beneath all the mayhem and blundering, is solid and Rehder adds a twist that had me smiling admiringly at the end of the book.