The Man, the Modulars, the Mystery

A review of Robert J Ray’s Murdock Tackles Taos

Invisible to all but the most astute reader, yet tools of the trade to the writer, modular scenes are the core of the mystery novel. Modular scenes are those universal elements every mystery has or it’s not a mystery. To name a few:

Crime Scene
Sleuth on Stage
Killer on Stage
First encounter—Victim and Killer
First encounter—Killer and Sleuth
Object links
Victim’s lair
Killer’s lair
Return to the crime scene
Killer confrontation.

Modular scenes are frames that contain the story. In the hands of an amateur, the modulars are clunky and obvious. In the hands of a master, such as Robert J. Ray, the modular frame dissolves leaving character, action, image, lust and desire.

Every Murdock mystery has two defining characteristics:

Good writing and control of the elements.

Good Writing: Buried in the action sequences in this novel there are, for example, subtle techniques of language that harken back to the rhetorical past:
“He drove a Humvee. Humvees smelled of money, money in her life was like manna, manna made her thighs quiver.”
In sentences such as this, Ray pays homage to Aristotle and the Trivium all in the context of a 21st Century detective novel…which, by the way, I believe Mr. Ray is in the process of reinventing by sticking with tradition while bringing a 21st Century social conscience to the genre. The writing in this novel is, in a word, stupendous. Crafted, controlled, wild and crazy when needed, the words create a world in which the rich eat the poor.

Control of the Elements: Ray defines character in just a few words but he gives us everything—whether we know it or not:
The Victim: “She wore hiking shorts with those bulbous pockets. Her skin, even in death, looked white and smooth, with a patina of sunburn starting. It was hard to estimate the height and weight of a corpse, but she was perhaps five feet five, weight around one-fifty. Her feet were bare, white, and scabby with blood. One green flip flop lay in the dirt beside her left foot.”

The key to the entire mystery in Murdock Tackles Taos  is one phrase: weight around one-fifty. You’ll have to read the novel to see why. As you read you will see that the mystery wraps itself up in that phrase which has, by the way, many transformations, all of which add up to the final revelation that will shock, enthrall, thrill, and at the same time challenge your belief in the goodness of human beings.

Object link: “Helene leaned on him as she framed the corpse in the view window of her camera. A soft click, her throat contracting. Then a quick shot of the downed bow-hunters. Without the man’s hand on her arm, without him to lean against, she would have fallen. As they started down the hill, her hip bumping his, she still didn’t know his name.”

As with all good mysteries, objects become characters as they move through the story.  The Maltese Falcon is nothing without the Black Bird. The Big Sleep  hinges on a photograph of little sister Carmen. In Murdock Tackles Taos, that camera, an object of small consequence at the beginning, lives on what Mr. Ray calls “a plot track.” The camera grows in importance as Ray unveils the mystery until, at one point, you ask yourself—Why didn’t I see that. Again, in mystery writing, the writer knows what the reader finds out, and Mr. Ray knows more than just a little bit about the craft.

I won’t tell you the story here—for that you’ll want to read the novel, and I won’t tell you who the killer is, but when you make that first encounter you might want to bring a towel to your reading to wipe off the slime.

This is a good mystery, maybe Mr. Ray’s finest. I understand that there is another in the works so will have to withhold judgment.


Eddie Iturbi