The child's face is haunting. Found in the shadow of the Dragoon Mountains, her corpse is a mass of contradictions: a beautiful girl, left in the desert without so much as a name; brutally murdered, but wrapped in immaculate white.
Her dark complexion hints at the kind of ill-fated border crossing that happens all too often, so her story might never be known.
But the finder is private detective Lena Jones, and the face is urging her on.
Scottsdale author and former Tribune arts writer Betty Webb sets her troubled shamus loose in southern Arizona, where Muslim immigrants collide with Western culture, and a predator lurks somewhere in between.
"Desert Cut" (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95) follows Jones as she struggles to find a name, and a killer, for the girl in the mountains. Her quest exposes a hive of brutal rituals and ancient hatreds simmering beneath the sleepy surface of the new Old West.
Fresh from her work cracking murders in the polygamist community ("Desert Wives") and on the literary circuit ("Desert Shadows"), Jones forsakes her cozy Scottsdale office for the dusty back roads of southern Arizona. The fictional town of Los Perdidos is thriving on the back of a chemical plant and the African and Egyptian immigrants working there. But the body, a 7-year-old girl dubbed Precious Doe, speaks of darker doings. Borderland slave traders? Racially based violence? The girl goes unidentified, but her face touches the tripwire to Jones' own past. When her death suggests a pattern of violence against girls, Jones risks the sheriff's ire, her own relationships and her life to bring the killer in.
Webb moves the story along crisply. (Note: Don't flip through the book, or the boldfaced research notes will spoil an important plot twist.) Jones pursues each lead with beat-cop diligence and an eye for the revealing detail, even as she struggles to keep her own demons at bay. In this, her fifth Lena Jones novel, Webb's detective shows an understated intelligence and a gritty sense of compassion, as stakes rise and the case becomes more personal. At times, Jones' tragic and complicated back story threatens to obscure the task at hand. But this case, and the way it addresses the lingering mysteries in Jones' own life, makes first-time readers want to backtrack to previous novels and see what they've missed.
"Desert Cut's" wide range of Arizona locales - the hard beauty of the Sonoran Desert, the tony sidewalks of Old Town Scottsdale, the shadowy innards of frontier bars - are especially well observed, allowing locals a vivid ride-along as Jones cracks the case. Her forays over to Hollywood, where she works as a crime show consultant, may seem a little over the top. But they pace a story that takes some very dark turns before justice is finally served.