A good mystery series has to fit like a well-worn glove. It's that utilitarian undertone of familiarity that sucks the most loyal readers in -- that sense of time, place and enduring character that pulls all the plots together again and again. Once you really know Philip Marlowe or Spencer or Dave Robicheaux, you can field whatever fly balls the fiction bats your way. Denver author Manuel Ramos, who is also a respected legal-aid attorney, got the concept early, as a boy growing up in Florence, where, he says, he may possibly have read every book available in the public library before moving to Colorado Springs at age fourteen.
A devotee of noir fiction, Ramos studied the masters -- Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain -- and it shows in the slow fruition of his own dark confection, burned-out Chicano lawyer Luis Móntez, the believably low-key star of Brown-on-Brown. The book is fifth in a series that began ten years ago with the Edgar nominee The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz. And for Denverites, the comfort zone is that much wider: When the reluctant gumshoe drives through town at night, it's the streets of Denver he traverses, moving through familiar places and windows on history and culture that we can relate to on a personal level. Locals can get some of that flavor when Ramos reads from Brown-on-Brown Thursday night at the Tattered Cover.
Even Ramos professes affection for the Móntez character. "He's the kind of guy I'd actually like to sit down with and have a beer or two and a conversation," he says. Like his creator, the fictional man is a Chicano lawyer with politicized roots who lives on the north side. They're both getting older; both like jazz and conjunto music. It's just that Móntez has, shall we say, better adventures, riddled with murder and mayhem. And in Brown-on-Brown, that would include mysteries surrounding a San Luis Valley water war complicated by the area's culture-clashing demographics.
It's a plot made for contemporary Coloradans, set in a place where, Ramos notes, "water is life. When somebody's taking away your water, they're challenging something you think is your entitlement. It's more than a natural resource. It's a way of life." Bring it on.