Skwiot's Chandleresque offering invigorates a familiar tale of murder and small-town political intrigue by playing it out against a thoughtfully layered backdrop of Mexican culture. Jake, an American drifter in an unnamed Mexican town, becomes a suspect in the murder of a local sculptor, Pancho. The search for the true culprit unearths the town's incestuous politics, and its economic tensions. Jake, meanwhile, has a fling with the seductive but virtuous Marta, Pancho's fiancee, despite unnerving visits from Pancho's ghost. Along the book's sleepy path we meet Jordan Freeman, a semideranged African American painter, as well as Hector Munoz, a driven but unsettled chief of police who balances his allegiance to the law with duties to two separate families. The murderer's identity comes as no surprise, since Skwiot introduces few reasonable suspects. He gives his story an impressively crafted, labyrinthine setting, but some clumsy writing, overheated subplots and cliched sex scenes detract from the book's cohesion. But Jake's adventure is gripping nonetheless, largely because Skwiot does not hide its more gruesome sides and handles scenes of grotesque violence with admirable restraint. Snappy and often funny dialogue keeps the novel and its characters moving through the crumbling houses of Skwiot's town. (Dec.) FYI: Skwiot's novel Flesh won the Hemingway First Novel Prize and will be issued by Eaton Street Press.