by Sharon Tucker
If it is true that readers of mysteries are the last true romantics (because we believe that justice is still possible in the world), then reading a mystery set in the American West must be a double pleasure. To evoke the American West is to long for what we think were simpler times, with clearer choices and life in the modern West still seems more simple a way of life to the urban sensibility. So, a mystery set in the West, what’s not to like? Whether we prefer going back in time to the old West or would rather read about modern times and modern issues, an abundance of either is at our disposal.
Notable among the many are Peter Bowen’s Gabriel Du Pre novels set in modern Montana, of which Coyote Wind (St. Martins, 1996) is the first. Du Pre’s Metis heritage informs the novels, providing a rich multi-cultural backdrop to his character. He is our protagonist, therefore we spend a lot of time in his head, listening to his thoughts spoken in an English/French patois—distracting initially, but soon so natural that the reader will find it hard not to enjoy his beguiling rhythm of speech and even miss it between novels. Du Pre is a romantic figure, but so grounded and practically functional in his way of life, inspecting cattle brand authenticity for the government, that the novels are deeply reassuring and calming despite plot complexity.
The plot of Coyote Wind centers around the first of many forthcoming obscure riddles in the novels set by holy man, Benetsee, for Du Pre. Benetsee has dreamed of a coyote sitting and howling by a pile of human bones and, as always, it’s up to Du Pre to discover the who and why of Benetsee’s dreams and visions. It is never an easy journey as Du Pre winds his way through mystical and human entanglements, but the journey itself is the object in Bowen’s exploration of modern Montana. Arrival at journey’s end in this case spurs the reader on moving on to the next entry in Bowen’s series.
Indian mysticism and culture also resonate in Craig Johnson’s Wyoming westerns, the Longmire series. But where Bowen’s Du Pre is an ancillary instrument of the law in Montana, Walter Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire is deeply troubled as the series begins, having lost his beloved wife and still reeling from that loss, unable to fully resume his duties after a year’s passing. He is also facing losing re-election as sheriff in The Cold Dish, the first of ten Longmire ventures. However, the bereaved sheriff is sparked out of his lethargy by the murder of one of a group of four high school boys accused of attacking a disabled Cheyenne girl. Since sentence was suspended for all the boys, feelings run high throughout the community and suspects abound.
Written in first person, Longmire’s restrained humor and inescapable intelligence make his world a place readers feel comfortable in and want to be a part of, joining him and friend Henry Standing Bear in bringing their world into balance. All the Longmire novels are immediately accessible and intriguing, addressing many issues of living in the modern American West, but it’s difficult not to see each as a chapter in the characters’ lives, leading the reader—if one is lucky enough to have recently discovered Longmire—to read them in rapid, unbroken succession. (Check out KRL’s review of the Longmire TV show)
In a quick-change to the Arizona dessert, meet Lena Jones—ex-cop, private investigator, and amnesiac. Betty Webb’s fast-paced Desert Noir also introduces the reader to Scottsdale, sometimes called a desert version of South Beach. The city’s vivid nightlife is the entree into a murder in Old Town, the artsy, boutique section of Scottsdale, where Lena Jones lives above her Desert Investigations office. She is partnered in business by Pima Indian Jimmy Sisiwan who is less mystic and more techno-geek, but a genuine love of and respect for the desert and it’s peoples’ customs is ever present in this and her other novels. (Check out our review of Betty’s latest book in her zookeeper mystery series, an interview with Betty & enter to win a copy of the book in this issue)
It is July in the midst of the Summer Spectacular Arts Walk, when Lena hears the shrieking discovery of a body in front of a neighboring gallery. Since the body proves to be that of one of Lena’s few friends, Clarice Kobe, Lena is immediately involved and must follow through looking into what proves to be a life-threatening venture. She and Sisiwan discover Clarice was an abused wife, neglected and mistreated as a child, and that she outraged in particular one of her artists by banning his violent didactic works from her gallery. Clarice was also indirectly responsible for the death of an elderly Hispanic woman whose daughter wants vengeance.
Desert Noir has the twists and turns of a classic noir—a troubled protagonist in a lose-lose situation, an attempted murder in the past, which bleeds into the present, corruption, the abuse of power and greed. Lena Jones is admirable in her tough-minded struggle to prevail. Luckily, nine Lena Jones novels are available to the reader—each inspired by actual events.
So do go west. Read mysteries that trifle with the genre, but in doing so, illustrate what is best about it.