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Originally published Friday, April 12, 2013 at 4:00 AM

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‘The Carrion Birds’: battling for survival in the New Mexican wilderness

Seattle author Urban Waite’s latest novel, “The Carrion Birds,” is a prime piece of Western noir, the story of two cousins battling for survival in the harsh New Mexican desert. Waite reads at several Seattle-area bookstores this month.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Urban Waite

The author of “The Carrion Birds” will appear at these area locations:

• At noon Tuesday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St. (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com).

• At 7 p.m. Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 Tenth Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

• At 7 p.m. April 26 at Secret Garden Bookshop, 2214 N.W. Market St., Seattle (206-789-5006 or secretgardenbooks.com).

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The harsh New Mexican desert is the setting for Seattle writer Urban Waite’s powerful second novel, “The Carrion Birds” (Morrow, 288 pp., $25.99).

In their tiny border town, cousins Ray Lamar and Tom Herrera were close as boys. But Tom stayed and became the (now ex-) sheriff; Ray left and became a shadowy drug kingpin’s hired killer.

Now Ray’s reluctantly back. He yearns to leave his violent life, but his employer’s forced him into one last job: robbing a heroin delivery. When that job goes wrong, it becomes clear to Ray that he’s been set up by his boss. He seeks revenge, the body count escalates, and Ray’s estranged cousin Tom is caught up in the violence.

“The Carrion Birds” resembles in many ways Waite’s strong debut, “The Terror of Living.” Both, for instance, have hell-for-leather plots about drug smugglers. Both fall into a category that might be called Western noir — crime stories set in the contemporary West. (“The Terror of Living” takes place in Washington state.)

Furthermore, both books blur the line between good and evil, focusing on two men on opposite sides of the law but with much in common. And both feature a climactic chase through harsh but beautiful wilderness that Waite evokes with muscular prose. (“Outside, the desert went on and on without mercy, gray and flat as a griddle pan.”)

Ray and Tom are well-developed, red-blooded characters, each with a full load of flaws and ambiguities. Each has deep regrets, and each yearns for a shot at redemption. Ray is remorseful about the vicious life he’s led. He’s also haunted by the hit-and-run that killed his wife and left his son brain-damaged — an apparent act of revenge by his boss’s rivals.

Meanwhile, Tom — who was forced out of office after a police operation went terribly wrong — desperately hopes to resume his lawman duties.

Unfortunately, the book’s supporting cast is less convincingly drawn — notably the town’s chief badass, a bar owner named Dario, and the new sheriff, Edna Kelly, who struggles mightily to contain the escalating violence. Another flaw is a subplot (about the town’s dried-up oil fields and the threat of violence from laid-off workers) that never catches fire.

Fans of noir fiction will recognize many familiar elements here — little new ground is trod. But no matter — “The Carrion Birds” is a bracing ride, and it’s a pleasure to see new changes rung on classic themes, especially when they’re done this well.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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