The most gratifying thing about Rudy Ruiz’s latest novel, Valley of Shadows, is the story itself, and Ruiz keeps the reader turning pages until the very end. Ruiz skillfully blends genres, adding elements of Westerns, crime stories, magical realism, and horror to create a world in which anything is possible. In fact, they seem quite plausible: the protagonist talks to the dead and hopelessly tries to outrun a curse; a ritualistic murderer strikes without warning and vanishes with few clues to their identity; and a major river doubling as an international border shifts its course. All of this feels normal in Ruiz’s world, because he lets his characters lead us through this adventure.
Solitario Cisneros is the former sheriff of the formerly Mexican town of Olvido, both of which lost their status when the Rio Grande’s flow shifted farther south. Since the treaty between Mexico and the United States dictated that the river was to be the border, Olvido found itself wholly outside of Mexico, and Solitario was replaced by a white man. Years later, a series of gruesome crimes, including one claiming the life of the current sheriff, convinces Olvido’s new mayor to pull Solitario out of retirement. Solitario conducts a professional criminal investigation, obtaining leads from the victims, some of whom are dead, edging closer to the mastermind. As he finds friends and foes among the diverse populace, he keeps them at arm’s length for fear of a family curse, which, he believes, is what took his beloved wife from him years before. His determination to not let it happen again threatens to put the whole case, and even his life, in jeopardy.
Ruiz’s Solitario is reminiscent of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo Tribal Police officer enlisted to solve bizarre crimes on his reservation in New Mexico. Often, he must rely on his knowledge of Navajo spirituality to solve the case. As a lawman, he is often mistrusted by members of his nation as well as white policemen, which complicates his task. Solitario discovers an indigenous quality to the crimes in Olvido, and like Leaphorn, he must determine whether the link is driven by old traditions, or if the murderer is manipulating investigators and the fearful populace. He, too, must overcome his own preferences and prejudices and investigate members of all races and cultures inhabiting the area.
The similarities between the two fictional cops end there, as Valley of Shadows ventures more into the supernatural. Solitario’s ability to talk to the dead is revealed early in the story: “He’d been keen to spirits since his childhood…. In his experience spirits clung to places for a reason, manifested themselves because of something unfulfilled that kept them anchored to this plane of existence.” The ghosts are important allies in this case, and Solitario would be at a significant disadvantage without them.
Solitario’s curse is another constant theme in the story. After his mother died trying to prevent his father from engaging in a fatal conflict, his grandmother was distraught. In her grief, she cast an irrevocable curse promising that “all of the male descendants of Mauro Fernando Cisneros will . . . lose what they love most.” In the end, the curse, along with the other supernatural elements, give the reader a sense of uncertainty as to where the murderer will strike next, and whether Solitario will even solve the crime.
Like in Hillerman’s stories, the history of the region plays a significant role in this story, adding tension on top of the terror surrounding these crimes. Mexico and the United States agreed that the Rio Grande would define the border between the two countries. Fictional Olvido prospered, with Mexicans on the south side of the river, and whites settling to the north. However, after the river changed course, the Texas Rangers immediately surveyed the scene and took control of the town. After the white sheriff is killed and the mayor reinstates him, Solitario must operate among the white Americans, who are keen to blame the crimes on Mexicans. The Mexicans, however, are also skeptical, because Solitario is working for the white mayor. Isolated from the start, the sheriff must question the motivations of all around him and is forced to rely on the spirits for help in solving the crimes.
Naturally, the Rio Grande’s course change invites discussions of racism in the border area. The characters’ viewpoints are shaped by their experiences, and not necessarily unfairly: a Mexican-Native American woman witnessed the white man’s exploitation of the region; a pair of white orphans were the sole survivors of a renegade Apache raid; the town doctor, also a white man, mistrusts any healing method outside of western medicine. However, Ruiz shows that open-mindedness can lead to reconciliation and harmony, and some of the characters consciously reflect on the others’ perspectives and are able to overcome their prejudices. Solitario himself serves as an example of this to his castmates, but only for those who are willing to change.
Overall, the blend of the historically-based Old West with elements of the supernatural produces a satisfying and unpredictable read. The uniqueness of the setting — both in time and place — give an interesting frame to events relevant in today’s world. The problems faced by fictional Olvido are reminiscent of those of the modern-day border region. Several of the characters in Valley of Shadows learn, if they are willing to understand the past and see things from the other person’s point of view, then maybe, just maybe, they can solve the most sinister problems out there.
Valley of Shadows
By Rudy Ruiz
Published September 20, 2022