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‘Nine Days’ is a devilishly twisty, funny read

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, November 1, 2014 8:03 p.m

Those of us who worship Sue Grafton and her Alphabet Series of mysteries starring Kinsey Millhone have gone into pre-mourning, as the end is nigh: “W Is for Wasted” came out a year ago, and Grafton’s got only three more letters to get through. And then it’s over. Argghhhhhhh!

Let us praise the literary gods, then, that a worthy successor has arrived with Austin author Minerva Koenig and her debut novel, the funny, scary and devilishly twisty “Nine Days.” In all my gazillion years of reading Kinsey Millhone stories, I’ve never come across a female character with half the gumption, guts and “I just don’t care” sass that Kinsey exudes. That is, until Julia Kalas, the whip-smart, witty, unconventionally attractive ex-money launderer at the heart of “Nine Days.”

With a debut author, comparisons are natural, and, yes, I’ve succumbed. But I’ll stop now, because Julia and her creator fully deserve their own praise and applause. The book neatly sets things up for a sequel that might involve conspiracies surrounding the secret burial whereabouts of Che Guevara. If all is right with the world, that’ll just be the first of many, many Julia Kalas adventures.

“Nine Days” starts with the newly renamed Julia landing in fictional Azula, Texas, population 5,141. She’s there under the federal Witness Protection Program, after she and her husband were attacked by white supremacists in California. Her husband dies, and Julia’s sent to the seemingly inoffensive, boringly calm wasteland of Azula. She’s set up in an apartment conveniently located in the same house as the police chief and with a job as a bartender.

Julia, who describes herself as pushing 40, “barely 5 feet and a size 16,” doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, but she oozes charisma that can make her irresistible. She takes delight in upending expectations of what’s sexy: “A lot of men don’t know what the hell to do when they find themselves attracted to me; it’s like they woke up on Mars.” Her boss, bar owner Hector Guerra, notices. Julia returns the sultry looks (and then some, eventually.)

For a small town, Azula’s got a lot going on. A downtown development scheme seems fishy. A curandera (Hispanic healer) knows way too much about Julia. A handful of gang members who call themselves the Texas Kings are lurking about. Then, a murder happens that might endanger Julia’s Witness Protection status, and severed hands start turning up in odd places. To complicate things, everyone seems to be either related or in bed together — literally or professionally, or both.

Koenig, who was raised in Galveston, Texas, is a master at dialogue and prose, showing regional accent, character and the oh-so-South Texas need for moisturizer in the smallest snippet. A sample: “’Melp you?’ the woman asked, keeping her eyes on the computer screen. She was stringy and dry-looking, like a harvested stalk of corn.” Or this: “The smell of hot wax, decaying flesh, and flowers floated through the room. I couldn’t figure out what question to ask first.”

The best thing about Julia is that she’s far from perfect. Her inherent close-your-eyes-and-steam-ahead bravery, for example, flees when she’s confronted with a Confederate flag at a possible gang lair. She’s not above snooping, or stealing, to get what she wants.

She’s mouthy and politically incorrect to the point of rudeness. I want her to be my new best friend.

Joy Tipping is a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News.

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