Shutter by Ramona Emerson


It was a Fresh Air interview with the author that took me to this book. Ramona Emerson is Navaho, is a documentary film maker and this is her first book. She used her own experiences to create the main character, Rita. The author was a forensic photographer for some years and had a beloved grandmother who raised her.

The book opens with Rita spending hours photographing the gruesome scene of a presumed suicide of a woman who jumped or was pushed onto a roadway. The detailed description was difficult to read and the author said she wanted people to understand the experiences of forensic photographers. She said though much of her work was not so gruesome, she did carry images in her head that gave her nightmares early in her career.

The character Rita, unlike the author Ramona, was troubled by the ghosts of those she photographed. In the case of the woman in the opening scene, she demanded Rita learn what happened to her and made Rita’s life miserable until she solved the murder. She even enlisted other victims to haunt Rita.

That tale involving corrupt cops is one part of this book. The other, even more satisfying aspect is the connection between Rita and her grandmother. In the interview the author said her grandmother was taken from her family as a child to be stripped of her Indian culture. Though she lamented the loss of so much time from her family and culture, she valued the education and opportunities she had because of that experience. She returned to the reservation and lived there the rest of her life and was active in work to support the Navaho. She would not allow Ramona to live with her on the reservation and forced her to be with her mother who lived in the nearby city so that the author would be in school.

Beginning at the time of the 1918 pandemic, the Navaho took on the belief that talking about death was an invitation and strict rules relating to death were the norm. The author’s grandmother was concerned when her forensic photography work took her close to death scenes and had her send all the clothes she had on at the time to her to be washed. In the interview the author was asked if she was visited by ghosts; she said not until she wrote this book.

There’s so much I enjoyed about this book:  the role of the ghosts in the crime story, the complexity of the grandmother’s life, learning about forensic photographers, learning a bit about Navaho culture.

Ramona Emerson, Shutter, Soho Crime, 2022, 312 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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