250 Pounds of Pot, a Taco Truck and a Cross-Country Road Trip

Scott Von Doviak has done the unthinkable: made me take the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard” more seriously. His latest novel, LOWDOWN ROAD (Hard Case Crime, 287 pp., paperback, $15.95) — with its hapless good ol’ boy antiheroes clad in aviator sunglasses, crotch-hugging Levis and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts — clearly takes inspiration from the series.

It’s summer 1974 in Texas, and Chuck Melville, six months out of a stint at the state prison in Huntsville, is bored and restless. He and his cousin Dean have come up with a not-very-smart plan to steal 250 pounds of marijuana and drive it in a spray-painted Gonzo Taco truck to Idaho, where Evel Knievel (whom Dean worships) is set to jump over Snake River Canyon on his motorcycle. That didn’t work out so well for Knievel, and it’s looking like the Melvilles’ scheme will result in harebrained catastrophe, too.

“The Dukes of Hazzard” had a social contract with its viewers: No matter what kind of trouble they got in, the boys would always prevail and live to see another episode. There’s no such guarantee with a book like this, which makes it even more fun to read.

THE BITTER PAST (Minotaur, 305 pp., $28), the impressive first effort from Bruce Bourgos, introduces Porter Beck, a longtime military intelligence officer who’s returned home to the Nevada high desert, where he’s now a sheriff — the same job his father held until being diagnosed with dementia.

“The long stretches of open road provide us with more than our share of vehicular deaths,” Beck says at the outset, “but there just isn’t a lot of people killing other people on purpose. When we do encounter it, it’s never like this. This is something from hell.”

“This” is the stomach-turning torture-murder of an F.B.I. agent that soon brings another federal law enforcement stranger to town. Before long, Beck realizes the killing has something to do with one of the agent’s old investigations, which looked into connections between a Soviet spy and the area’s radiation-spewing nuclear testing program in the 1950s. Beck’s father is somehow involved in the case, too, though his ability to help his son figure things out is limited. Beck must sift through what was lost to history and what remains, as profound and dangerous an excavation as there can be.

A physicist and a psychic meet up during an ice storm — sounds like the opening to a joke with a killer punchline, right? But Mindy Mejia’s TO CATCH A STORM (Atlantic Monthly Press, 352 pp., $27), the first in a new series after several stand-alone suspense tales, turns out to be a more propulsive affair — though it gets off to a slow start and doesn’t hit its stride until around Page 100.

The physicist is Eve Roth, who’s searching frantically for her missing husband, a University of Iowa chemistry professor who was recently suspended for inappropriate behavior with students — and who, it seems, had serious money problems he had long concealed from her. The psychic is Jonah Kendrick, a private investigator who claims to have “certain parapsychological abilities.” He tells Eve that her husband is “trapped in a barn” and needs to be rescued.

“What’s your source?” she asks. When he replies, “I … saw him. In a dream,” she’s livid: “The only way to see things at a distance is with a telescope.”

With no other leads, though, and few results from the police, Eve and Jonah begin to investigate together. The rational and the unexplained smash into each other as it becomes clear that Eve’s husband is not the only one in grave danger. Mejia sets things up nicely for further teamwork and conflict between Jonah and Eve, at the nexus point of what we can — and choose to — believe in.

Kelly J. Ford’s prior two books, “Cottonmouths” and “Real Bad Things,” splendidly evoked the dark poetry of the Ozarks. In THE HUNT (Thomas & Mercer, 353 pp., paperback, $16.99) Ford renders the town of Presley, Ark., as a living entity swirling with resentments and loyalties, and governed by fear, thanks to wild rumors that a serial murderer stalks prey at the town’s famous “Hunt for the Golden Egg” each Easter, where residents vie to find an egg worth $50,000: “Since KCLS 103.9 FM’s inaugural Hunt for the Golden Egg in 2005, 17 citizens … have either died in a mysterious manner or disappeared.” Nell Holcomb has never been sure what to think — was her brother the so-called killer’s first victim, or is there a more complicated explanation?

Obviously, the answer is the latter, but the way Ford unspools the story and depicts Nell’s internal struggles makes “The Hunt” truly absorbing. You won’t find any tidy narratives or simple judgments here.

Sarah Weinman is the Crime & Mystery columnist for the Book Review; the author, most recently, of “Scoundrel”; and the editor of the forthcoming anthology “Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of Reckoning.”

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