The Desert Saint, a Brilliantly Written Debut Crime Thriller

The Bottom Line: An emotionally charged, brilliantly-written debut crime thriller.

Desert Saint crime thriller

Maria Varela’s entire identity is centered around her life as a detective. The daughter of a Las Vegas Police Department detective, she has earned a reputation as a dogged, determined cop in her own right with a spectacular track record. But the murder of her brother, Tommy, threatens to turn her entire life upside down.

Tommy’s death bears a telltale mark of a long-dormant serial killer dubbed the Desert Saint: two .22 caliber gunshots to the head from the same gun, and a token left with or near the body. But the killer is elusive. There have been no taunting calls to the press or police, and the connections between the victims appear to be tenuous at best.

But there’s also this: Maria’s father was assigned to the case in the 1980s. Maria’s partner, Michael, thinks that revenge against Maria’s father may be the only reason the Desert Saint has come back. But Maria insists that she doesn’t want a protective detail, and while she can’t technically work her brother’s case because she has a personal connection to the victim, it goes without saying that she’ll find a way.

In Maria, A.M. Pascarella has created a heroine with uncommon depth. While not afraid to show some emotion, we’re always aware of just how much is simmering beneath the surface.In addition to her father’s law enforcement pedigree, Maria’s ethnic heritage is carefully assembled in both subtle and bold brushstrokes from early in the book. She withstands racist comments (“one hundred percent beaner”) and thoughtful questions (“didn’t all that anti-immigrant stuff bother you?”), groundwork that pays off as more about the killer becomes known. And as the book reaches the third act, Maria’s analytical skills prove sharp enough to cut through any favoritism she might otherwise show her family. No small mannerism or glance goes unobserved.

While the book is rounded out with a compelling cast of characters, Vegas itself is the supporting act – and not the one we all see advertised on TV. Pascarella’s Vegas takes place on the east side, in neighborhoods destined to be bulldozed in favor of newer, shinier developments, and in old casinos where old slot machines still hum. It’s not glamorous, and it feels appropriately gritty within a novel in which a hardworking detective comes to grips with things she never wanted to know about her family. 

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