The Exiled, from Christopher Charles, opens at the scene of a horrendous murder at the Wilkins ranch, a place owned by an older married couple. This is not the sort of crime usually found in the sparsely populated deserts of New Mexico.
death here seemed governed by natural law. What happened in that bunker belonged to another place. It was urban, something from what Bay had called Raney’s past life, something that would have made sense on the basement of a Lower East Side tenement.
Raney, a former New York narcotics detective, is the sole homicide investigator covering an area over 200 sq miles, and he’s used to cases “that solved themselves.” The blood and carnage he finds at the Wilkins ranch echo scenes from Raney’s past when his life as an undercover cop derailed with horrible consequences.
The Wilkins ranch, “over a thousand acres of pinon-dotted slopes,” is owned by a husband and wife well known to Bay, the local sheriff who oversees the small nearby town. Inside a bunker on the ranch, there are three dead bodies along with the telltale signs of a major cocaine operation. The cocaine, approximated at ten kilos, is gone, and the widow Mavis Wilkins, who doesn’t even bother to pretend she cares, professes she knows nothing about her dead husband’s drug activities or the identities of the two other victims who have connections to a major Mexican drug cartel.
Their search of the house turned up nothing-no drugs, no ledger, no hint of who Wilkins bought from or sold to–nothing but the portrait of a relationship that had long since become something less than a marriage.
While Sheriff Bay takes Mavis Wilkins’s story at face value, Raney, who has much more experience in the world of narcotics, knows that she must be involved. Mavis Wilkins owns an art gallery in the nearby town, and yet the local economy hardly seems likely to support such an improbable business venture. Raney gets a tip to track down a man with a bad toupee, and that brings Raney to the local Indian casino. It’s here that Raney spots some signposts to help him solve the case. As he delves into the complex investigation and Mavis’s shady past, the body count savagely rises, and Raney realizes that he’s chasing someone who’s looking for revenge.
The case, for its violence and its drug connections, opens a window to Raney’s past, and the book goes back and forth between the Wilkins case and Raney’s life as an undercover narcotics cop. Interestingly, there’s an 18 year gap between Raney’s exodus from New York and the Wilkins case. We know little of his life in that time; permanently damaged by events in New York, he’s stayed single and has no relationships.
Raney’s past bleeds into his present and his future, and it feels as though Raney could become a series character. While the author creates two distinct, violent worlds and starts very strongly indeed, a plot twist involving revenge seemed a little implausible to this reader. The New Mexico terrain, however, certainly adds a flavorful dimension to the tale; the sleepy little town has just one “commercial street” and tries to maintain its “pioneer charm.” But there’s an ugly side to the town that even the locals seem blissfully unaware of, and that ugliness comes bubbling to the surface in the wake of the Wilkins Ranch murders.