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by Ramona Emerson
Soho , August 2022
312 pages
ISBN: 1641293330

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Rita Todacheene has done something her Navajo relatives find dangerous and destructive: she takes pictures of dead people. It was the only paying job she could find as a photographer. Unfortunately, her relatives are right: she is haunted by uneasy ghosts. One in particular won't let her alone.

As the novel opens, Rita is at the scene of a messy death. A woman apparently vaulted over the railing of an overpass onto a busy interstate, and her remains are scattered across the highway. As a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque PD, Rita has to frame and shoot each remnant, taking hundreds of photos while the cops discuss what might have happened. The scene would be haunting for anyone, but for Rita it's just the start. The dead woman demands to know what happened to her and who is responsible, and she's very angry. As much as Rita would like to stick to her photography and let the cops sort it out, the ghost won't let her.

If the author were not, herself, Navajo, the all-too familiar premise a detective literally haunted by crime victims would be problematic, situating this plotline in a culture that takes death very seriously. Fortunately, Emerson handles the context with sensitivity and cultural competence, making the position Rita is in, caught between cultures, an important part of the narrative. We come to know who Rita is and how she came by her early fascination with photography through flashbacks to her childhood on the rez. Photography itself is an important part of the story, and it lends a strong visual style to the writing. The Albuquerque and reservation settings are vividly rendered, with realistic treatments of both police procedure and indigenous life.

The opening chapter is more graphic and gruesome than what follows. The depiction of a violent death is not gratuitous; it introduces Rita and how she sees the world through the lens of her camera. However, squeamish readers could skip past the opening and start when the dead woman is reassembled into a furious, demanding presence driving Rita forward through an engrossing thriller. Emerson, a filmmaker, is a stylish writer who has deftly combined plot, character, and setting into a compelling montage.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, March 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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