I had never heard of Mark de Castrique when I decided to read his latest Buryin’ Barry mystery, Risky Undertaking, and I’m wondering now how I missed this NC author since he’s quite a prolific writer. All I really knew from the publisher’s blurb was that this latest mystery was set in the Great Smokey Mountains and involved a possible Cherokee burial site, along with a few other things that sounded really interesting. If you like Tony Hillerman’s Southwest police procedural mysteries, you’ll find a Southeastern equivalent in Risky Undertaking.
No worries if you haven’t read the prior Buryin’ Barry mysteries. I obviously hadn’t and I had no problems reading Risky Undertaking as a stand-alone novel. I love finding new favorite authors and I’ve found one in Mark, and I don’t mind one bit that it means my TBR stack is growing. Thanks to the publisher for giving us a copy to use for a pay-it-forward giveaway one of you will win!
A Little Background: Barry Clayton has an unusual mix of jobs: he’s a part-time undertaker in the family business and a part-time deputy with the Gainesboro, NC police department. Between that and the fact that, like most western NC small towns, everyone in Gainesboro knows everyone else, it probably won’t surprise you to learn he takes a lot of ribbing about it, hence the nickname Buryin’ Barry. Barry grew up in Gainesboro, near Asheville, but lived in Charlotte and worked for its police department for years until his dad was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease, causing Barry to return to his hometown. And here’s a tidbit: Barry may be just a tiny bit autobiographical since Mark’s family owned a funeral home business, and lived above it, in Hendersonville, NC, near Asheville.
A few prominent businessmen Barry plays poker with, including Archie Donovan, Jr., Luther Cransford, and Mayor Whitlock, got together some years back and opened a new cemetery, Heaven’s Gate Gardens, which has done so well that now they want to expand it. They had gotten Barry to endorse it the first time and they’re pressuring him to do the same thing again, which makes him uncomfortable. It feels like a conflict of interest but in a small town it’s hard to know where to draw the line.
When Barry reluctantly shows up in his undertaker role for the grand ceremony of “planting” and unveiling the gate to the new expansion, he has to switch roles to policeman fast when the diggers find someone already buried there. Uh-oh. To make matters worse, it looks like the remains may be Cherokee. That could mean anything from delays while the site is assessed to a full-on archeological dig and the site being off-limits completely. Needless to say, the businessmen involved are not happy.
When Larry’s wife, Eurleen, suddenly dies and they take her to be buried at Heaven’s Gate Cemetery, things get ugly fast. A Cherokee activist named Jimmy Panther is leading a protest about the uncovered remains, blocking access to the cemetery. The anger and hurt Larry and his family feel coupled with the anger Jimmy Panther feels mean it doesn’t take long for things to get ugly, with hate-filled words and fists flying. Although the funeral and Eurleen’s burial proceed, the added burden caused by the protest is more than the already mourning family can take. Larry is inconsolable and beyond angry.
“I got out. Uncle Wayne was opening his door. I heard drums. And then I saw the picket line.
Six marchers walked counterclockwise in an elliptical pattern over the width of the road. Their steps crunched the stones in time to the beat of the two small drums played by two men standing at either side of the formation.
Jimmy Panther held the largest sign. ‘Respect Our Dead As Well.’ Other signs read, ‘Dignity in Death’ and ‘Cherokee Rites are Right.’
I recognized the man and woman who had been with Panther earlier in the week. The others, a mixture of men and women, appeared to range in age from late twenties to mid-thirties.
They walked solemnly without speaking. No chanting. No native garb. No ceremonial paint. The men wore dark suits and the women, dark slacks and white blouses. They could have been attending a funeral themselves. I realized they were being respectful, drawing a comparison between Eurleen’s interment and the burials that may have occurred here centuries before.”
That incident is why, when Jimmy Panther is found murdered in an execution style shooting lying on top of Eurleen’s grave, the first suspect on the list is Larry. Next on the list is the rest of the family, including Eurleen’s two children and her brother, State Senator Mark Collins, because of their reactions to the protest. It doesn’t help when Barry believes Larry is lying to him about where he was the night Jimmy was killed.
Then an old Army friend of the local sheriff, Boston PD’s Kevin Malone, shows up on the trail of a notorious Boston hit man who for some odd reason has been at the Cherokee casino since a few days before Jimmy’s murder. Malone believes someone called for a hit on Jimmy and that his suspect was the killer. WTH? Why would a Boston hit man be interested in something that’s happening in the little town of Gainesboro? And, sure Jimmy was a troublemaker, but hiring a hit man? That doesn’t make sense. People have been shooting each other in these mountains for hundreds of years. They don’t need to hire high-priced outside help to do it.
Whether or not the hit man is involved, Barry needs to coordinate with the Cherokee reservation’s police department so he and his boss, Tommy Lee, head up to meet with Hector Romero. Romero makes it clear that Jimmy had enemies inside as well as outside the reservation, because his activism threatened to stall construction of an additional casino. That new casino would have provided an additional large stipend for every member on the reservation rolls, a badly needed stipend for most folks. So Romero and Barry begin working the case from the Cherokee side while others in the Gainesville PD continue to run down alibi corroboration and other forensic details.
“Bright white teeth flashed in the wide bronze face. ‘Well, if it isn’t Rooster Cogburn and his one-man posse.’…
‘That’s why I feel so at home in Indian country.’ Tommy Lee said. He stepped forward and shook the Cherokee’s hand. Both men turned to me. ‘This is my deputy and lead investigator, Barry Clayton. Barry, meet Hector Romero, the modern edition of Sequoyah.’
Romero laughed as his hand swallowed mine. ‘He’s kissing up to me, which means the poor Indian is gonna get screwed again.’
‘Save it,’ Tommy Lee said. ‘You know the whole reason for my being here is to make you look good.’”
Malone wants just one thing, a way to pin his hit man, and he’ll do anything to get that done. Barry and Romero want to catch Jimmy’s killer, whatever his motivation for the murder, because they’re learning things in their interviews with Jimmy’s family and others on the reservation that make them fear the killer could easily strike again. And a young boy has gone missing. Could that also be tied to this case or, since Jimmy was the boy’s mentor, could he have gone into the forest to grieve alone? Either way they’ve got to find him.
They’ve also got to find the killer before he can strike again, and to do that Barry agrees to go undercover as a tourist at the casino. Since he has the worst poker face on the planet, he ropes in his Uncle Wayne and Archie to help out – possibly not his best idea. The two men are thrilled at the idea of becoming James Bond for a night while secretly being terrified they’ll screw things up, something Barry’s definitely thinking about too. Will it work? Are they even on the right trail or are they off on some wild goose chase while the real killer is doing God knows what?
From Barry and his Uncle to Hector and the members of Jimmy Panther’s family, the characters in this novel live and breathe on the page…and I’d happily invite them to dinner, all except the killer of course. They are drawn that authentically, warts and all. The town, the state, the reservation, how the NC mountain Cherokees’ history has contributed to its future, and Indian casinos are all also characters in that they play a significant role. The author gives a lot of insight into the relationship among all of those entities and individuals, and how it has developed for better or worse.
Much as Tony Hillerman does, Mark de Castrique has written a novel in Risky Undertaking that is definitely a crime detective/police procedural mystery; however, it is so much more. The dialogue and very visual descriptive text flow like water over smooth mountain streams, and they draw you into this world until you’re suddenly hooked as surely as mountain trout. I didn’t want to put Risky Undertaking down and I’m itching to read all of the Buryin’ Barry novels immediately! In case there’s any doubt, I loved it and I recommend it for anyone who likes mysteries!
Can’t wait to read it?
Risky Undertaking was published on November 4, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click on the button/link and go get it to read now!
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