The Chili Queen
by Sandra Dallas
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002
The Chili Queen is set in New Mexico some years after the Civil War, probably the 1870’s or 1880’s. Addie French is a former slight-of-hand artist turned businesswoman. She now owns a whorehouse called The Chili Queen. On a train trip from Kansas City to her home in Nalgitas, New Mexico, she meets Emma Roby. Addie is used to quickly assessing women and decides Emma is a spinster who looks a little old and dowdy. She’s definitely not the type of woman you’d find at The Chili Queen. Emma is actually on her way to Nalgitas to marry a man she has never met.
Shortly after arriving back home at The Chili Queen, Emma shows up at Addie’s back door asking to stay for a few days at her ‘boardinghouse’. It seems the man she was to marry doesn’t want her after all. Since Addie does have a soft spot for helpless women, she lets her stay, “just for a few days”. While there Emma meets Ned, Addie’s boyfriend who is a loveable bank robber. She also meets Welcome, a former slave who’s come to cook and housekeep at The Chili Queen.
Addie, Ned, Emma and Welcome talk about what to do to help Emma. They hatch a plan on how they can get Emma’s brother to send her five thousand dollars. While they are waiting for the money to arrive, Addie talks Ned into taking Emma out into the country during the day. A dowdy looking woman hanging around The Chili Queen is not good for business. It’s during these rides that Emma and Ned develop a friendship and also a plan to rob a bank. Emma is looking for adventure.
To tell you more about this story would be to rob you of the pleasure of reading it. From what I’ve told you already you probably believe you can predict the conclusion. You would be as wrong as I was. This story twists and turns and none of the characters as I’ve outlined them stay the same.
The characters are well developed and the author had me really caring about Addie, Emma and Ned. She also made me see the landscape of New Mexico, feel the heat of the desert and get a good sense of the times. About half way through the book the story started to drag. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on it. For me, that section could have been shortened. The ending didn’t exactly go the way I wanted it to go but the author was wise enough to make the ending realistic.
The Chili Queen was the winner of the 2003 Spur Award for Best Western Novel. I highly recommend this book for fans of Sandra Dallas and lovers of Western fiction. I’m certainly planning to read more books by Sandra Dallas. She has a new book just out, Prayers for Sale, which will be reviewed by Joann (Jo-Jo Loves to Read) on Monday, August 24th. Joann has also scored a guest post with the author. Be sure to visit Joann at Jo-Jo Loves To Read.