I held back some photos from a trip to New Mexico in April because the period between September 15 and October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month. 


 Americans are often history amnesiacs. They look at a map of the United States and think that the lines delineating the states have always been where we see them now. At best, they carry vague memories of having once studied “something or other” about how the U.S. acquired the land from “sea to shining sea.”


19th c, House of Manuel Baca y Delgado



Borders have legal status but are by nature as fictional as those dotted territorial map lines. Only human beings are expected to honor them. There is a living history museum about 20 miles south of Santa Fe called El Rancho de las Golondrinas. Golondrinas means “sparrow” and, if you think about it, birds are among the creatures that couldn’t care less about borders.


18th c Tower and Fort

A small history lesson: The place we call New Mexico was once part of indigenous North America. This changed in 1598, when Spanish conquistadores led by Don Juan de Oñate came to the region. That same year, Don Pedro de Peralta founded Santa Fe. Pueblo peoples rebelled against erstwhile Spanish masters in 1680, but a new conqueror, Don Diego de Vargas, returned the area to Spanish rule in the 1690s. And so it remained until 1821, when the Mexican Revolution succeeded in establishing Mexico as independent from the crumbling Spanish Empire. The northern part of the new Mexican state had been dubbed Nuevo México by the Spanish and so it remained, though it was a large territory that contained lands that are now part of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.


  Nuevo México was seized by the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-48), along with lots of other land that became all or part of most of California, Nevada, Utah, and (eventually) Texas. What did that mean for Mexicans? Everything and next to nothing. Like the swallows, borders were treated as the fictions they are throughout the 19th century and into the 1930s. Los Golondrinas was part of an arid valley culture that stretched south from Santa Fe to Mexico City.


When we use the term Hispanic, technically it means those who come from places where Spanish became the dominant language. In North America, a Hispanic person can be one whose family roots are in the Iberian peninsula or one whose birth ancestry was Mexican or Indian. As often as not, Hispanics are mestizo (Spanish + Indian), pardo (Spanish + Indian and/or African), mulato (Spanish + African), zambo (Indian + African), or some other combination.


To cut to the chase, Hispanic is more of a cultural designation than a precise anthropological or biological designation. Los Golondrinas, which first opened in 1972, shows the evolution of hybridized cultural traditions in a place that was once one end of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, a major trail for the silver trade. It represents the 18th century through the dawn of the 20th


Irrigation ditch


Among its virtues is that it (mostly) keeps romanticism at bay. It’s hard to hide the reality that life in such a dry land was difficult and marginal. There is a small ditch that one could easily stride across that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Why? Because it carries a trickle of water to parched lands. Signs along the property remind visitors to keep an eye open for rattlesnakes. (Luckily, they weren’t active in the spring!) 


Adobe ovens




The building material of choice was adobe, chosen because mudbrick is easily made and because it insulates well against both cold and searing heat. Wood was used sparingly, was generally unfinished, and proved a better way to fence in animals that tolerated the harsh climate (burros, goats, sheep). 


Catholic Church

Late 19th c wooden structure


Golondrinas Cultural diffusion is also in evidence at Los Golondrinas. That fancy term simply means that over time culture is as much of a mutt as the human gene pool. The Spanish brought Catholicism, Natives dug water ditches and harvested indigenous crops, Black and Mexican vaqueros were the prototype for cowboys, and Euro-Americans squeezed commerce out of the land. If you’re looking for any sort of pure Hispanic culture, that’s a bit like looking for Big Foot–more legend than reality. 


Early 19th c talpa mill

Tin shop



If, on the other hand, you want to see how people lived, adapted, and innovated, Rancho de Las Golondrinas is a place where present-day people step back into the past. It has the added virtue of being just far enough away from Santa Fe that it’s seldom crowded. If you're anywhere near by it will entertain and enlighten.




Rob Weir


Better the Blood a Cut Above Murder Novel




By Michael Te Arawa Bennett

Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages




The cover figure is a koru.


The opening chapter of Better the Blood might sound familiar. The year is 1863, and six white men pose for a photograph with the dark-skinned man they’ve just lynched hanging in the background. But this is New Zealand, not the American South.


In Máori, the phrase n tea hi ka tahuna he ahi an loosely translates “in the fire a fire is lit,” an expression that, in context, means violence begets more violence. Better the Blood is a gripping murder mystery that also highlights profound differences in how New Zealand and the U.S. respond to violence. Without giving too much away, there is a world of difference between the American public’s “an eye for an eye” measure of justice* and the Máori standard of utu, a restoration of balance.


From 1863 we fast forward to 2023, when Detective Senior Sgt. Hana Westerman is outraged when Patrick Jonathan Thompson walks away with a warning and a chance of expunging his record despite his conviction for raping a Máori woman. The judge, no doubt in a side deal with Thompson’s expensive counsel, incredulously declares he doesn’t wish to ruin Thompson’s law school plans! Hana knows full well that were the attacker Máori and the victim Pákeha (white), the rapist would be in prison. As a furher insult, Thompson taunts Westerman in the car park, threatens to rape her daughter, smashes his own face into a pillar, and blames her for breaking his nose. No witnesses and it’s his word against hers, she is also Máori, and is suspended.


To say Hana has a lot on her plate doesn’t begin to get it. A tip leads her to an abandoned building where she and Stan, a younger detective, find a bound junkie hanging from a ceiling beam. Oddly, he was dead from an 11 centimeter (about four inches) wound before he was hanged. Shortly thereafter a developer leaps to his death from a tall Auckland building­–or so the first report goes until Hana notices his puncture wound and discovers a spiral in blood. If this weren’t enough, her adolescent daughter Addison has just moved in. Hana is divorced, though Jaye Westeman is also her boss. The two remain friendly, but Addison is tired of hearing Jaye’s Pákeha partner pontificate about social justice in ways she finds patronizing–not to mention that’s Addison’s turf when she performs as a rapper.


Several more bodies appear before Hana recognizes the link between the body count and the1863 photograph. For North American readers, a bit of history is in order. In the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, many Máori iwi (tribes) ceded land to the British Crown in exchange for protection from other erstwhile European imperialists What ensued is analogous to treaties with North American Indians. What does “cede” mean and how extensive did Máori** believe it to be? It remains a contentious issue; the Waitangi Tribunal settles disputes, but Máori now own less than six percent of New Zealand’s land. 


Someone has decided that the tribunal and utu are at odds. Hana, Jaye, and Stan soon identify the serial killer as Poata Raki. Once exposed, he begins to text Hana, who bears some major identity guilt. Eighteen years earlier, when she was a rookie cop, Hana took part in dragging Máori protestors off government land atop Auckland’s Mount Suffolk, which a local iwi regards as sacred. Its members and other Máori–including Addison when a YouTube video of the protest surfaces–regard Hana as kápapa (traitor). Hana fears they may be right, but does Poata’s concept of utu justify murder?


This dilemma, the identity of the victims, and Poata’s moral code lead some to admire him, even when thinking he is misguided. Better the Blood adopts the desperation, escalation, and beat-the-clock devices common in crime novels, but Bennett skillfully constructs back stories that add richness and depth to the major characters. If you ascribe to eye-for-an-eye justice you might applaud Poata’s assertion, “The time of the lamb is over…. It is time to return to the old ways. Of utu. To avenge that which has never been avenged.” Among Máori, the word whenua means both land and placenta. What is the best way to replenish (“better”) Máori? You will be surprised.


Bennett is a New Zealand director and writer. His English-sounding name notwithstanding, he is also Máori. His surname, Addison’s, and Hana’s—as well as a non-binary lesser character subtly infuse the novel with another knotty issue: identity in the multicultural present. In short, Bennett’s novel is a cut in complexity above standard mystery fare.


Rob Weir


* Many Americans believe an eye for an eye is Biblical. Nope! It’s from Hammurabi’s Code.


** Máori is both singular and plural.






Thursday Murder Club Book Two


The Man Who Died Twice: Thursday Murder Club Mystery Book Two (2021)

By Richard Osman.

Viking, 351 pages.

★★★ ½




The old gang–in both senses of the word–is back: Joyce, Elizabeth, Ron, Ibrahim, Bogdan…. So too are their law enforcement allies, PC Donna DeFrietas and DCI Chris Hudson. Book Two of the Thursday Murder Club series is not as much fun as the first book, in part because learning more about the characters removes some of the intrigue that made the first book so special. In particular, we find out a lot more about Elizabeth Best and why she is often able to gain favors and access to things we would not imagine a person residing in a retirement home to acquire. We also meet her first husband Douglas Middlemas, an exasperating rogue who has also been in the spy business.

The new caper involves stolen diamonds from the home of Martin Lomax, a middleman in organized crime dirty dealings. About £20 million worth of jewels have been removed when Martin’s home is burgled, and Douglas is probably the one who stole them. In a parallel story, gentle Ibrahim is badly beaten by a group of muggers on BMX bicycles. The assault has all the earmarks of local punk Ryan Baird. The Thursday Murder Club first mobilizes to find out who put poor Ibrahim in the hospital. Elizabeth, though, can't help but think that somehow the hot diamonds and the attack on Ibrahim are linked.

Maybe, maybe not; Elizabeth is not infallible. This time around our elderly sleuths are engaged in some seriously dangerous business. Martin has Mafia connections and it’s their diamonds that are missing. If they don't show up Martin will end up a corpse, as will anyone else who gets in the way. Quite a few bodies appear in this book, but will all of them stay dead? Elizabeth and Douglas recall a past case about the man who died twice, hence the novel’s title.

There are new subplots, including the fact that Chris is having a hot affair with Donna's mother, Patrice. This is rather refreshing because Donna and Patrice are Afro-British, and Chris is White. We also meet a clueless MI5 agent named Poppy who’d rather be a poet.  But rest assured, Joyce is still keeping a quirky diary that’s a mix of British deadpan and cavalier commentary on violence. When one murder victim is shot in the noggin at close range, Joyce muses upon the experience of blowing someone’s head off: “It probably doesn't suit everyone. It wouldn't suit me... Perhaps it would suit me? You don’t know until you try, do you? I never thought I would like dark chocolate, for example.”

Book Two is darker than the first novel. A lot of things come into play, including knitted friendship bracelets, delicious revenge against Ibrahim’s attacker, Elizabeth’s inquiries into obtaining £10,000 worth of cocaine, a woman named Connie Johnson who makes Martin seem like a pussycat, a bus station locker, a suspicious parent, and a deadly game that sends Elizabeth seeking answers to cryptic clues left by Douglas. Bogdan has more to do in this novel and Ron's character is softened. Who would expect gruff old Ron to be a doting grandfather? His grandson Kendrick even manages to get in on the act.

Many readers may find that the mystery in The Man Who Died Twice is more sophisticated, others that the book is too sanguinary and not as much fun. In my estimation, Osman interjects enough humanity to temper matters. There is, for instance, an interesting take on Elizabeth's husband Stephen, who is in the grasp of dementia. Yet there are times in which he is lucid, plays chess, and helps the Thursday Murder Club make sense of the rising body count. Osman also knows when to press the comic relief button, like jokes about the receding hairline of an MI5 agent and Donna’s unsuccessful efforts to ignore the details of her mother's relationship with Chris.

Given that Book Three is due out this fall, you may rest assured that the Murder Club will remain intact. Speaking for myself, I hope that the new book will return to the good-natured tone of Book One and save the swashbuckling for James Bond.


Rob Weir