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Arts Some subjects can't be framed 

PR maven Sasha Solomon spins art, sex, and the truth in The Belen Hitch

There's a ghost in the train yard. She lingers in the old Harvey House, floating down its elegant staircase and peering out of dark, lifeless windows. If you visit, a man with a jangling ring of keys will offer to show you around; he may even take you to her room. Don't be afraid: In her poofy bun and immaculate uniform, Ernestine just wants to serve you a cup of coffee and a nutritious breakfast.

Or so the good people of Belen, New Mexico, would like Sasha Solomon to believe. But Solomon, prone to ghostly visitations and occasional conversations with her cat, can't see Ernestine. Is it the Chinese herbs she's taking or is somebody lying?

In the Belen Hitch, number two in Pari Noskin Taichert's Sasha Solomon mystery series `see "Crooked cowboys and talking cats," April 15-21, 2004`, Belen's mayor has hired the public-relations consultant to determine the fate of the Harvey House - art gallery or a train-themed bed and breakfast - a debate that divides the sleepy town.

Her first day on the job, Solomon visits the home of Phillipa Petty, an old friend of her mother's and a wealthy artist internationally renowned for blasphemous paintings of religious icons, as in "The Cross-dressing Christ." She arrives to find the kettle whistling itself dry and Petty asphyxiated in a miasma of poison. She is obviously the victim of foul play. The problem, as Solomon soon discovers, is that nearly the entire town has a motive for killing Petty.

Although remembered by all as a temperamental shrew, in sweeping fits of generosity Petty had promised several old friends and acquaintances large sums of cash upon her death and had committed certain of her works to the Harvey House, which would have made it a destination for art enthusiasts and a sore spot for Belen's impassioned conservative-Christian element.

The Belen Hitch

By Pari Noskin Taichert
New Mexico Press
$24.05, 286 pages
ISBN: 0826339158

As a sleuth, Solomon works with and against fictional stereotypes. On the one hand, she's a hard-drinking loser-at-love, with a wicked sense of humor and a combative, somewhat guilty relationship with the local police. On the other, unlike Sherlock Holmes or Kinky Friedman's alter ego, she'd rather ignore Petty's murder than deduce its perpetrator, and so, like the girl in the horror film, she often fails to recognize glaring clues and wanders blithely into danger.

Yet, as a PR maven, she is always sharp as a tack and three steps ahead. Taichert weaves Solomon's PR activities through the mystery, using Solomon's interviews with Belen locals - an attempt to register public support for the dueling Harvey House projects - to introduce subplots and suspects: From a tippling, shar-pei-faced brakeman who favors the bed and breakfast and has a startling relationship to Petty to a housedress-wearing artist of a certain age and peckish tone who prefers the gallery and may have been mentioned in Petty's will.

Perhaps most interesting is respected author Jack Whitaker. A salty old dog, Whitaker invites Solomon out to his ranch for a chat, only to demand a roll in the hay while, in nearly the same breath, suggesting that he might be her father (he once shared a ménage à trois with her mother and Petty). As if to prove the genetic link, Solomon sees a flash of color, the room goes cold, and Whitaker declares he's seen a ghost.

Is Jack Whitaker her father? Is Ernestine for real? Who killed Petty?

With Belen Hitch, Taichert once again creates a suspenseful mystery but, just as importantly, she also preserves the goofy energy and humor that made The Clovis Incident so charming. At the same time, one can see the difference a year makes in plot and characters that feel more solidly developed. All that's left now is to wait for the next installment.

By Susan Pagani

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