James Kelty’s magical mystery novel “Ragged Point” is set in the Cambria author’s home territory, and locals will be able to picture the scenery as they read it — although some of the names have been changed.
Ragged Point is the name of the fictional town where it is set. Readers will also recognize elements of the plot lines, which are even more timely now, when it has become available as an e-book, than they were when the book was written and first published 14 years ago.
Drought, development, land grabs and plans for a dam, a reservoir and a winery are in the mix. But the compelling plot is a magic realism mystery involving a search for a lost Indian village, a hidden cave with rock art, the casting of mystical Indian spells, some surreal suicides, and characters who go from bad guys to good guys and back again.
The story has many facets, and chapters cut back and forth in time as they focus on various key characters. Daniel Tallweather, whose wife recently died, lives with his 8-year-old son, Jody, on a sprawling ranch on land that was taken from the Indians by his ancestors in a land grant 250 years ago. He has Indian blood, and he is sometimes haunted by spirits from the past.
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A pair of wily developers wants to have the ranch condemned and taken over for their development, and a rich doctor wants some of it for a boutique winery. There is no single protagonist, as the story is told from the points of view of various characters, including the doctor’s wife, who becomes entangled in the tale, which is punctuated with dead bodies.
The most fascinating character is Moraine, an Indian archaeologist who is hired to ensure that there are no artifacts or Indian burials on the disputed land. The story goes from present to past as we learn about his origins and his mystical Indian mentor, and as old letters are printed in the local newspaper that describe a historic mission massacre of the Indians.
The trips into the past are stories within the main plot, and they introduce people whose past history has been woven into the fabric of the current story.
The writing is colorful and often humorous as the style sometimes borders on satire, especially with some of the more stereotypical characters, such as the doctor and the developers. Others, like the doctor’s wife and Tallweather’s young son, Jody, are likable and well developed. Some of the Indians are pretty spooky.
The place names are fun for those of us who recognize them. Paso Robles becomes Paso Encinas, and Eden Valley sounds more picturesque than Edna Valley. King City undergoes a gender change as Queen City. The Native American aspects of the plot appear well researched, if the use of the Salinan language and history that are vital elements of the mystery are authentic.
This is a fun read as it starts out as just a good story and builds to become a gripping thriller.
By James Kelty
Kindle eBook: Published February 2014. $9.99.
Print edition: Watermark Publishing 2000, paperback, 396 pages.