Friday’s Forgotten Book: Hal’s Own Murder Case by Lee Martin

Anne Wingate (Martha Anne Guice Wingate) has written multiple mystery series, including one of my all-time favorites. Under the name Lee Martin, she created the memorable character of Deb Ralston, a detective on the Fort Worth police force, with three adopted children and a husband in career crisis. One of the threads throughout the 13 books published between 1984 and 1997 is Deb’s discovery of and eventual conversion to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Since Wingate is an adult convert to the LDS church, it’s easy to believe there’s a degree of autobiography in these stories.

I have read all of the Deb Ralston stories more than once and some many times. (For those interested in genealogy, a couple of them focus on family history and research.) I think Hal’s Own Murder Case (St. Martin’s Press, 1989) is among my favorites. After adopting and raising three children, Deb in her early 40s is pregnant and on leave, expecting to deliver within a few weeks. Hal is Deb’s youngest child and only son. His attention deficit disorder in addition to the usual teenage angst makes him utterly maddening, such as when Deb discovers that he and his girlfriend Lori have decided to hitchhike to New Mexico during their spring break without telling anyone. Deb is conjuring mental images of slow and painful punishments while she begins her search, when her husband, in the hospital with a broken leg, gets a call from the police in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Hal is being held there as a potential murder suspect. She is in no condition to chase after the wanderer but since her husband is immobile, she has no choice.

She arrives in Las Vegas to learn that the body of a stranger was discovered in Lori’s sleeping bag and that Lori has disappeared. The murder was committed with a hunting knife that belongs to Deb’s husband. Hal was found disoriented and covered with blood. The local police were confident they had found the culprit and that they would find Lori’s body soon. Deb joins forces with Police Chief Alberto Salazar to find Lori and get her runaway son out of jail. The exchanges between scatter-brained Hal and practical, grounded Chief Salazar are wonderful pieces of dialog.

These books are excellent late 20th century police procedurals, before the explosion of IT and the internet re-invented investigative techniques. The characters are some of the strongest I can remember seeing; it’s easy to think I might run into Deb at the grocery. The ending is unexpected, when Deb’s professional work sharply coincides with her personal life. Highly recommended.

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