Title: The City of Rocks (A BJ Vinson Mystery)
Author: Don Travis
Publisher: DSP Publications
Length: 280 Pages
At a Glance: Another five-star work in the BJ Vinson Mystery series!
Reviewed By: Ben
Blurb: Confidential Investigator B.J. Vinson thinks it’s a bad joke when Del asks him to look into the theft of a duck… a duck insured for $250,000. It ceases to be a funny when the young thief dies in a suspicious truck wreck. The search leads BJ and his lover, Paul Barton, to the sprawling Lazy M Ranch in the Boot Heel country of southwestern New Mexico bordering the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
A deadly game unfolds when BJ and Paul are trapped in a weird rock formation known as The City of Rocks—an eerie array of frozen magma that is somehow at the center of the entire scheme. But does the theft of Quacky involve a quarter million dollar duck-racing bet between the ranch’s owner and a Miami real estate developer, or someone attempting to force the sale of the Lazy M because of its proximity to an unfenced portion of the Mexican border? BJ and Paul go from the City of Rocks to the neon lights of Miami and back again in pursuit of the answer… death and danger tracking their every step.
Review: If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, please start with The Zozobra Incident, which is book one. Technically The City of Rocks could function as a standalone, but if you read this one first, you’re going to wish you’d started with book one, and that’s a promise.
Before I get into the actual review, I wanted to mention that the protagonist, BJ Vinson, is a hero of mine. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s true. There isn’t much in common with the two of us. He lives in New Mexico; I live in the Pacific Northwest. He’s a confidential investigator; I’m in retail. His parents are dead; I live with mine. He’s gay; I’m pan. About the only thing we have in common is our age. But I still admire him and see him as a mentor of sorts.
While there isn’t much that’s similar in our lives, there was one lesson I could take from BJ and translate into my own world: he’s a swimmer. I never really swam on a team or anything, but it seemed like something I could add to my marathon training. So, because of BJ Vinson, I took a swim class, and now I swim a couple of hours a week. Because of him, I’m going to attempt an Olympic triathlon sometime next year.
It’s probably clear by now that I may be bias when it comes to BJ’s character, but the series is also fantastic. Considering I’ve been reading mystery/thriller’s my entire life, my opinion is far from biased in that regard. The writing is also fantastic. Here’s an example of the way Travis uses language:
A six-foot-three, sunburned, sandy-haired man, whom I assumed to be Hammond—trailed by a couple of minions in white hard hats—began issuing orders left and right. He paused at Josefina’s desk and learned I sat not fifteen feet away.
Travis has the keen ability to paint us a crystal-clear image in a single sentence, one that sticks with you. All of his characterizations are sharp and don’t mince words; you won’t find a lazy sentence among the bunch. I highly respect that.
While the writing is polished and sophisticated, the story itself starts out a bit silly. BJ is hired by his lawyer friend, Del, to investigate the disappearance of a show duck, Quacky Quack the Second. I have to be honest, I didn’t read the blurb before I started this book, so I was hooting with laughter when I came across the duck-napping.
But then people start dying and shit gets real.
In this book we get to see more of Paul, BJ’s love interest. I think normally Paul opens up a softer side to BJ, but I didn’t get that vibe this time. I’ve made this observation before, and I’ll make it again: BJ and Paul are a straight-acting couple, who don’t know much about the gay scene. Paul even frequents a straight bar to dance with women, while BJ sometimes drops by to watch. At one point BJ has to call one of his ‘gay friends’ who know something about the ‘lavender handkerchief scene in town’ (rather than actually using the word ‘drag’), in order to investigate a lead. If that doesn’t demonstrate how out of touch BJ is, I don’t know what does. Then again, I was told the other day that the old is new again, so there’s that.
Ideally, I’d like to see a more playful and relaxed side to BJ. He joined the Marines when he was younger, to ‘prove to himself he was a real man’ (paraphrased), but I think he comes into his own when he opens up to his vulnerabilities. Unless we count Paul as a vulnerability, that piece of his personality was lacking. While the love interest being in danger is sort of a time-honored theme in the genre, there was a missed opportunity to open BJ up, let us under his skin. I’ve also mentioned before that I would like to see him get more in touch with the gay community, but maybe next time.
The BJ Vinson mysteries mostly reminds me of the Prey series by Sandford. Lucas Davenport and BJ are similar in that they are both—in part—a characterization of the place they live in. They both use colloquialisms of their region, which add flavor to the works. In Davenport’s case, that’s the twin cities; in BJ’s case, it’s Albuquerque. They also both employ a sort of unorthodox and nearly Machiavellian approach to detective work. Davenport gets shuffled around the fringes of the force do to his unconventional methods, while BJ was forced to retire from the force due to an injury, and now works for himself, taking certain liberties with those freedoms. They’re also both rich white men who haven’t always been wealthy, which gives them a similar air of privilege.
Hands down, this is my favorite mystery series in a long time. Five stars!
You can buy The City of Rocks here: