Review of Texas-set mystery series starter


J J Rusz

The Window Trail: A Big Bend Country Mystery


Paperback, 978-1-7224-2487-9, (also available as an e-book),  284 pgs., $12.99

July 4, 2018


In Big Bend National Park, the Window Trail is a 5.5-mile, out-and-back pathway that draws hikers, birders, and others to its rugged beauty.


In J J Rusz’s engrossing, well-crafted new novel, “the Window” is other things, as well. It becomes the scene of an infamous suicide that is spotlighted in a best-selling book, and curious visitors from afar flock to stand at the exact spot where a young man plunged to his death. Meanwhile, a gruesome murder is discovered by a newly hired Sul Ross State University assistant professor, Claire Harp, while she and a local student are showing the trail to two students visiting from Ohio. The Window also becomes the impetus for a slow-starting romance between Claire and Clayton Alton Shoot, the Brewster County deputy sheriff investigating the murder.


The Window Trail is the first book in a projected mystery series focusing on Far West Texas and some of its communities. J J Rusz is the pen name of John J. Ruszkiewicz, who recently retired after four decades teaching literature, rhetoric, and composition at the University of Texas at Austin. Rusz previously has written several college textbooks and now lives in the Alpine area.


One strength of his new novel is how well Rusz describes the story’s settings and surrounding territory.


“Many travelers admired this corner of Texas in the abstract,” Rusz writes. “Its layered horizons and luminous sunsets were the stuff of coffee table books....But close up, the counties west of the Pecos and south of Interstate 10 were very much like one’s first swallow of bourbon, sharp and raw....Even the plant life could seem needy and mean.”


The author also offers well-formed characters who generally come across as everyday people. There’s no focus on jaded old-timers, nor on burned-out investigators who have controversies hanging over their checkered careers.


Clayton Alton Shoot, the Brewster County deputy sheriff, is a modest, by-the-book young man who blushes easily and doesn’t condone sex before marriage. His official rank is captain, but he prefers to be called simply “deputy.”


Young English professor Claire Harp is a Far West Texas newcomer who has gained appreciations for the desert and how the survival there is finely balanced. She also has reasons for wanting to spend “[a] few years away from urban sprawl”—her mother wants to marry her off to a man Claire doesn’t love.


At Sul Ross, one of Claire’s new suitors, Michael Kincaid, is the English professor whose best-selling book about the Window Trail suicide has lit up the literary world, boosted Far West Texas tourism, and brought him many academic offers. How can a modest deputy sheriff compete with that?


In the meantime, there’s a murder to solve. The victim was a woman well known to men in the area, so the list of possible suspects is long for Deputy Shoot to investigate. And Claire, conducting her own investigation, also must decide what to do about Kincaid, the literary lion, who keeps prowling nearby.


Like a good, challenging hiking trail, J J Rusz’s new Big Bend mystery novel is rich with compelling twists and turns.

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John J Ruszkiewicz, born in Cleveland, Ohio, earned a BA from St. Vincent College in 1972 and a PhD in English from The Ohio State University in 1977. The author of a wide range of college textbooks, including Everything's an Argument, How to Write Anything, and A Reader's Guide to College Writing, he is recently retired from the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught literature, rhetoric, and composition for forty years. Now under the name J J Rusz, he has published The Window Trail: A Big Bend Country Mystery (2018), the first book in a projected series focusing on Far West Texas and its surrounding communities, including Alpine, Marathon, Fort Davis, Terlingua, and Marfa. He currently spends much of his time in Alpine, Texas, enjoying its proximity to Big Bend National Park.