“Blackwater Falls,” by Ausma Zehanat Khan  (Minotaur Books)

When the body of a young Syrian girl is found hanging on the door of a mosque, crucifixion-style, a female Muslim detective is assigned to the case. Inaya Rahman is a member of an elite squad of the Denver Police Department’s Community Response Unit, and the sheriff of Blackwater Falls, where the body is found, is furious that he’s been taken off of the case.

There’s good reason for that. The sheriff is powerful and corrupt, and higher-ups want to expose him. More important, from Rahman’s point of view, is that the sheriff has all but ignored the disappearance of two Somali girls. He claims they are runaways.

But no one can ignore the bizarre death of Razan Elkader. It’s not only the placement of her body but also the fact she had been frozen. Ice crystals cling to her body. A scholarship student at a prestigious school, Razan had ties to some of Blackwater Falls’ most powerful entities. She was an intern at an aerospace company, and her father worked at the local packing plant, where he was nearly killed when he tried to form a union. And Razan had run afoul of the leader of the evangelical church that dominates the community and his gang of avenging motorcyclists.

In her search for the killer, Rahman runs afoul of all of these elements and even finds resistance from her boss, Waqus Seif, who seems to appease the sheriff. Rahman and Seif are attracted to each other, but Rahman worries that Seif is a sell-out. Moreover, both have secrets.

The first in a proposed detective series by Colorado writer Ausma Zehanat Khan, “Blackwater Falls” is not just a thriller but is also a story of faith. In a distinctly different work, Khan explores a world unknown to many readers of mysteries.

“Cheap Land Colorado,” by Ted Conover (Alfred A. Knopf)

You’ve seen them in the San Luis Valley if you’ve driven U.S. 285 on the way to Taos: ramshackle dwellings cobbled together out of old lumber, corrugated iron and discarded windows and doors. Maybe you’ve wondered who would live in such places.

So did Ted Conover, former Denver resident and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He spent four years living and working with the off-gridders who dwell in the valley. At first, he expected the bulk of the residents would be idealists and hippies with a few self-sustaining environmentalists thrown in. He was surprised to discover that most of the off-gridders were “the restless and the fugitive; the idle and the addicted and the generally disaffected,” he writes. Most of the 1,000 or so off-gridders were turning their backs on urban America because that life “had become unsustainable, whether because of too many bills or too many disappointments.” They were mostly Trumpers, pro-gun and America first. Some were drug users, and many grew pot.

Conover agreed to volunteer for La Puente, a group dedicated to helping the poor. He brought free firewood to the dwellers and offered a helping hand. He quickly learned to honk before he turned off the road and wait until someone came out of the house to avoid vicious dogs or a gun.

To truly understand the off-gridders, Conover knew he had to live with them, so rented a trailer. The first morning, he woke up to minus 7-degree weather, his trailer door frozen shut. But he grew to love life in the valley, the sweep of stars in the night sky, the beauty of the sun on prairie grasses. He bought himself a site and stayed, on-and-off, for four years, becoming an accepted member of the community. He came to understand their independence, their kindness to neighbors — and their loneliness.

“Cheap Land Colorado” is an introspective look at a group of Americans who have built a culture unlike anything since the Great Depression. Written with affection for his subjects, Conover tells their stories and makes readers understand this slice of American life.

“Death on a Winter Stroll,” by Francine Mathews (Soho Crime)

It was a stressful Thanksgiving for Nantucket police Chief Merry Folger. But the president of the United States had successfully left the island after spending the holiday there. Merry could relax and enjoy the annual Christmas Stroll.

Not so fast. First, a famous wildlife photographer is found dead at a boarded-up house. Then, an infamous Hollywood agent is discovered face down in a swamp. Both were killed by a shotgun blast. The deaths are curious, because as far as Merry and her crew can tell, there was absolutely no connection between the two.

The island is packed for the Stroll. The agent’s wife is filming a TV series starring heartthrob Chris Candler. But Candler is distracted by his concern for his bulimic daughter, Winter, who is struggling with a terrible secret. Winter dodges her bodyguard and runs into Ansel. He’s vacationing with his father and stepmother, who happens to be secretary of state.

The two bond, and Ansel takes Winter to meet his mother. He’d discovered the year before that she is not dead, as his father had told him, but is hiding in the derelict house so that she can photograph birds for a book.

Then the bodies are discovered, and everybody, it seems, has a reason to be guilty of one — but not both — of the murders. Merry and her detective, Howie Seitz, must solve the mystery and arrest the killer before the secretary of state and her entourage decamp for Washington and the film crew packs up and returns to Hollywood.

“Death on a Winter Stroll” is the seventh in Denver author Francine Mathews’ Merry Folger mystery series. (Mathews, as readers may know, is also the author of the charming Jae Austen mystery series, under the name Stephanie Barron.) “Stroll” is an intriguing mystery, but even more captivating are her descriptions of the island and ocean in winter. They’re luminous and add richness to the text.

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