A Thirst for Murder

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Release Date: 
April 17, 2024
Camel Press
Reviewed by: 

El agua es la vida—“water is life”—Cedar Koons writes at the beginning of her compelling new mystery, A Thirst for Murder, quoting an old Southwest Spanish saying.

Set in Northern New Mexico, this richly atmospheric story focuses on a modern fight for this life-giving liquid.

The conflict is over the centuries-old allocation of water rights, a system based on snow melts, gravity and shared, shallow, delivery canals, called acequias. (A beautiful cover photo by Koons’ husband, Edward Scheps, illustrates the contemporary acequias system.)

Although this ancient Spanish practice was implemented in the New World by Southwestern colonists, Koons writes that the indigenous Picuris and Taos people had a similar form of irrigation well before the Europeans arrived.

Climate change has exacerbated water scarcity, with shrinking mountain snowpacks, and quicker melting of what remains.

In the case of Thirst, the dispute is between Hispanics and Native Americans on one side, who use their riparian rights for agricultural purposes, including subsistence farming, and for municipal services. And on the other side, a neighboring county that wants to continue siphoning off a portion of the water for its own uses, including a new, high-end golf resort.

Anglo developers are the primary villains, encroaching on descendants of Spanish land grants owners—the same land that one of Koons’ characters wryly observes was stolen from its Native American owners by the European colonists.

Thirst is a political mystery in the best sense of the genre, as the struggle quickly turns into one of cronyism and corruption—and of multiple murders.

This is Koons’ second mystery featuring Taos County Sheriff Ulysses Walker. The series debut, Murder at Sleeping Tiger, took place in one of Taos County’s numerous Zen retreats, and earned her the 2023 Next Generation Indie Award for Best Mystery.

Still, it takes considerable courage to venture into literary and geographical territory so long dominated by Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Nation Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

But Koons, a retired psychotherapist, poet, and longtime resident of the village of Dixon, New Mexico, is up to the effort. She knows the territory, both geographically and psychologically.

And if anything, Walker is the opposite of Leaphorn and Chee: He is a meditating Anglo in Taos County, only bordering on tribal lands. He hires a Native American trans man to serve as his department’s dispatcher. And in contrast to the Southwestern mystery stereotype, the sheriff is not a very good shot.

There is also a timely cultural and political subtext. As the murders take place, Sheriff Walker is facing a tough reelection campaign from a well-connected, right wing, Hispanic challenger, an erstwhile tool of the developers.

In its closing days, the race gets ugly.

Walker’s campaign manager observes that “politics these days is about fear, division and extremes. You know that. Make people afraid, make it about us and them, make up a few hare-brained conspiracies and you are off to the races.”

By Thirst’s conclusion there are half a dozen bodies scattered around the pueblos: Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo. The climax is a hugely exciting, a white-water chase on a stretch of the Rio Grande River called “The Taos Box.”

It’s been nearly 40 years since John Nichols wrote The Milagro Beanfield War, also set in Taos, later turned into a popular movie, centering on the same, fraught, water issues as A Thirst for Murder.

Sadly, very little has changed since Nichols’ classic tale.

And Thirst’s plot is by no means farfetched.

The New York Times recently reported about the town of Saloma, Ariz., west of Phoenix, in conservative La Paz County, where Donald Trump won by 40 points in 2020. There, extracting groundwater for corporate agriculture and mega-farms—at least one Saudi-owned—has caused the town’s level to collapse four feet.

In the Arizona state capital, the Times wrote, “Democrats have seized on water as a life-or-death election issue that they hope gives them an opening—however slight—to reach out to rural voters who abandoned the party.”

At least in Arizona they’re not killing each other—yet.

A word of caution for monolingual Anglo readers: In the book’s first few pages, and later, you may have to pick your way through the unfamiliar Spanish terms for the complex irrigation arrangements. So be sure to consult the definitions in the author’s note at the beginning of the book, and, if necessary, again in a glossary at the end, including technical terms in English for water rights.