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Skeleton Picnic by Michael Norman

Published by Poisoned Pen Press on April 3, 2012

Collecting artifacts -- pottery, arrowheads, beads, particularly those of the Anasazi -- is a hobby for the Rogers family. Because their collection includes human bones, they call their outings "skeleton picnics" (a polite euphemism for the desecration of burial sites). When Rolly and Abigail fail to come home from a skeleton picnic, their neighbor, J.D. Books, investigates. Books, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Ranger stationed in Kane County, Utah, soon learns that the Rogers' home has been burglarized and their antiquities collection stolen. When the Rogers' truck is found at a dig site with no sign of Rolly and Abigail, Books wonders whether their disappearance is related to the burglary of their house. The answer to that question probably won't surprise any of the novel's readers.

Skeleton Picnic is the second J.D. Books novel. Although I didn't read the first (On Deadly Ground), my impression is that Books has a more exciting professional life than most BLM Rangers. According to the BLM website, Rangers in the southwest spend quite a bit of time dealing with "off-highway vehicle issues." Since ticketing drivers doesn't make for dramatic reading, it's fortunate that Books encounters an improbable amount of violent crime. It's unfortunate, however, that there isn't more drama in this rather unexciting novel.

Books is a dull guy with little personality. A rookie sheriff's deputy Books inexplicably ends up "training" at least stirs up a bit of controversy by suggesting that it is wrong for Books to lie to suspects, but that ethical debate is quickly abandoned. Similarly, a conflict between Books and his lawyer girlfriend after she is appointed to represent a suspect in the Rogers' disappearance could have given the story an emotional jolt, but the subplot eventually fizzles out. Books has a strained relationship with his father (who isn't really his father, a fact he must have learned in the first novel), but that subplot also travels to a dead end. In the final chapters Books supposedly recognizes the possibility of danger in a situation where the danger is obvious to the reader but walks into it anyway, making me wonder just how bright the guy is. "Nice but boring and a little dense" is the best description I can give of Books -- not the sort of protagonist who can carry a crime thriller to a successful conclusion.

Skeleton Picnic includes some middle-off-the-road political viewpoints that most readers will likely find inoffensive. In addition to those, Books indulges in several (mercifully short) lectures on the evils of collecting and selling illegally recovered antiquities. Of course, grave robbing is one thing and digging up an old blanket is something else, even if the blanket happens to be buried on public land. Norman appears to recognize that and Books ultimately expresses some balanced opinions on the issue. He even recognizes that he's probably enforcing unenforceable laws and questions the wisdom of devoting federal resources to futile pursuits. I appreciated his sense of proportion but wondered whether a character doing dull and pointless work is really worth writing about.

Norman's dialog-heavy writing style occasionally relies on clichéd expressions but for the most part his prose is readable if unexceptional. Like Books, the supporting characters in Skeleton Picnic are nice but bland, which is also how I would describe the story. Skeleton Picnic is a pleasant police procedural covering an unusual aspect of law enforcement but there's nothing special about it.


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