On April 18, the New Mexico Press Women's Association annual conference held a ceremony honoring recipients of the 2009 Zia Award. Each year the focus of the Zia Award, which is presented to a New Mexico woman each year, shifts; in 2007 it was awarded to a fiction novel, in 2008 it was childrens' books, and 2009 was focused on nonfiction. This year's winner was Paula Moore with her intriguing book Cricket in the Web: The 1949 Unsolved Murder that Unraveled Politics in New Mexico.
Moore's book takes the reader back to post-WWII Las Cruces and into the life of Cricket Coogler, a petite 18-year-old waitress who (forgive the cliche) lived fast and died young. Coogler, a known flirt, got into an unidentified car at around 3 am on March 31, 1949 and was never again seen alive.
Nonfiction books can be too dry, but when the author gets invested, they can become clogged with syrupy sentimentality. Moore's book is neither dry nor dripping. The book reads like a novel, much like two of my favorite true crime novels: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Each of those three books are intriguing, written smoothly and very, very hard to put down.
The picture Moore paints of Cricket and her acquaintances is detailed, personal, and at times downright chilling. With recorded testimony from 1949, present-day interviews with surviving witnesses and reasearch done after the fact (Moore mentions that the night Cricket disappeared was the night after a new moon; details like that are just the ticket to understanding the exact ambiance of the evening), Moore creates characters out of historical figures and draws the reader in.
The murder isn't the only subject of the book; the subsequent political tangle is Moore's main focus. From the moment Cricket's death was reported, things went strangely wrong. Cricket's mother Ollie reported her daughter missing at 8 am on April 1, only 4 and a half hours since Cricket was last seen alive. For an unknown reason, Sheriff Happy Apodaca didn't make the news public until April 6, and finally on April 12, Apodaca arranged a party of 30 Boy Scouts to look for the girl. Cricket's body was not found until April 16 (and it was an accidental discovery, having nothing to do with the Sheriff's department).
From there the story only gets more absurd, more tangled, and more infuriating. Most infuriating perhaps is that the murder remains unsolved to this day. In a recorded quote from Ollie Coogler from May 7, 1949, she says: "Several of my friends have told me I had better be quiet and not push the investigation if I knew what is good for me. But when you have a daughter murdered, you feel like you have to do something." While the case may remain unsolved forever, perhaps something is finally being done with the publication and - hopefully - popularity of Moore's book.