When it comes to the noir genre as it pertains to place, perhaps one still immediately thinks of Raymond Chandler and his macabre view of Los Angeles as seen through the lens of Philip Marlowe. Then, of course, there’s always the archetypal curmudgeonly detective of the East Coast, usually (and vexingly) based in New York. But few authors, if any, have dared to set their hardboiled narratives in New Mexico. Enter Max Talley with his crime thriller novel, Santa Fe Psychosis.
Jackson Bardo, fulfilling the detective (or “out-of-work PI,” if you will) role and “Hanged Man” fate of the book, finds himself falling down the rabbit hole of his continued combination of love and lust for his ex-girlfriend, Jenny Dawson. Even if her hard living should theoretically turn him off to her charms by now. As Talley writes, “Bardo knew that those who lived on cigarettes, lines of coke and whiskey turned into the frightening sexless character at the end of the bar by their fifties… That sad realization only spurred Bardo to see Jenny sooner, before brutal time and gravity took their toll.” So it is that he flies to Santa Fe to lend her some money (at her noncommittally extorting request). And hopefully get “something” back in return. But all he gets in exchange is a lurid missing person case after she disappears.
The sinister circumstances surrounding it all play into how place is of the utmost importance to evoking this kind of unsettling feeling. Those who have never been to Santa Fe will quickly pick up on the aesthetic of the town with descriptions such as, “The compound encircled free-standing, adobe-style condos, all separated behind red clay walls called gates.” Like most places subject to the whims of gentrification, there lies a seedy underbelly beneath the air of “pristineness.” As evidenced when Talley writes, “They talked in the central parking area, everything neat and ordered, gardened and manicured. But just beyond lay chaos: scrub brush, arroyos, humps of hardscrabble land where coyotes, wild dogs and other predators roamed at night.”
Just as Laura Palmer’s journal would also be filled with words overanalyzed by men trying to figure out what happened to her, so, too, is Jenny’s as Bardo remarks, “…the pages were torn out, except three words: Santa Fe psychosis.” Hence, the title of the book. And yet, in keeping with Talley’s sardonic sense of humor, the story doesn’t always quite land on the same entirely serious note as, say, Sunset Boulevard or Double Indemnity (both film noir standards written and directed by Billy Wilder, an aficionado of the genre). As is the case during an exchange with Jenny’s great-aunt, Luna, who insists that Jackson will find his answers by “listening to the wind.”
An act that only seems to get Luna herself murdered. And as the plot thickens, Bardo teams up with Detective Diego Juarez to figure out just what, exactly, has happened to Jenny. This soon unravels a more nefarious reality afoot: that of a child trafficking operation. And as Bardo gets mixed up in the thick of it, his inherent PI mode kicks into overdrive…complete with so often being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Even in parts of New Mexico beyond Santa Fe, as Talley illuminates other milieus including Coyote and Guadalupe, as well as the beloved Taos, of which the narrator paints the picture,
Route 68 aimed directly toward the wall of Sangre de Cristo Mountains that stretched clear into Colorado, Wheeler Peak dominating them at over 13,000 feet. Many of the tops on the range still showed snow in May. Bardo had visited Taos before and found the surroundings beautiful but had never acclimated to the vibe there. A kind of rich, New Age, outspoken liberal, millionaire bohemian thing that he accepted but could never attain. From its legendary hippie days of the 70s, downtown Taos was mostly filled with tourist knickknack shops and restaurants now. A compact version of Santa Fe.”
As we go on Bardo’s unpredictable journey through Santa Fe and beyond, it’s difficult not to be beguiled by the Land of Enchantment, regardless of the ominous underpinnings delineated throughout. Just as Breaking Bad also made so many feel that way despite, you know, the whole meth malaise element; and yes, the show does get name-checked at one point, with Albuquerque inevitably inserting itself into the plot by the end… much like Jenny herself.
Santa Fe Psychosis, published by Dark Edge Press, is currently available to purchase here.