Western Mystery

Early’s Fall by Jerry Peterson

Set just after the conclusion of WWII in a small town in Kansas, this (first in a series, I hope) mystery novel features a sheriff who, just before enlisting and going off to war, had been a hobo riding the rails. Interesting! Especially since at this stage in his life, James “Cactus” Early is the picture of respectability: he holds a position of responsibility in the county, is well-regarded professionally, is fairly newly married, and he and his wife are expecting their first child.

This mystery novel has the feel of a Western—as many mysteries actually do, if you move their setting to the West. But here the setting is truly western, a fact that is re-enforced by the book’s opening scene: a bank robbery committed by a criminal who escapes on horseback. Of course, for this to be a mystery novel, there also is a murder—of a woman who teaches at the local school alongside Early’s wife. And the burglary and murder are just the kicking-off points of a series of events that eventually change Sheriff Early’s life.

One thing to like: President Truman has a cameo in this book. I adore Truman, and I think the author thinks he’s OK, too.

And, one more thing: I really like the author’s name.

Childhood on a Dude Ranch

Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg

The most poignant recollection of boyhood I’ve ever read. While reading the chapter “My Sister’s Boots,” I actually had to put the book down because I almost began to weep (while reading in a restaurant; that will not do). This author is just that good. Spragg grew up on a Wyoming dude ranch, where, from a tender age, he worked alongside the hired men. I’m not sure whether he either inherited his stoic ways from his tough, quiet father or his strong mother; or whether he learned them from the men he worked with (and lived with – during part of the year, he slept in the bunkhouse). An honest, beautiful book about a sometimes brutal, mostly wondrous boyhood and the young adult years that followed. It was awarded the Regional Book Award by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. This group has selected a fine list of winners, and Where Rivers Change Direction is certainly award-worthy. It reminds me of other excellent memoirs of rural childhoods: Lazy B: Growing up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day, and The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway. But of these three, Spragg’s book is the one I know I’ll need to re-read.

I’m Back in Wyoming Again (though I’ve really not left home)

Open Season by C.J. Box

Joe Pickett works as a game warden in Wyoming, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. In this fine debut novel, he uncovers a devious plot involving wildlife – and lowlifes. I picked up this book because it’s set in the West (and I wish Craig Johnson would write a little faster, please!) and because the books in this series always seem to get strong reviews. At first I was surprised to find Joe so vulnerable, and then I was glad he’s so human (and, in the end, so brave). Another aspect of these books that is strongly appealing is the importance of Joe’s family, and particularly the beautiful relationship he has with his two little girls. They say liking the main character is the key factor in whether you follow an entire mystery series, so I’m hooked. The second and third books are in my pile of books to read, and I can’t wait.

This Mystery Novel Should Win Major Awards

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

When I come across a mystery this good, I feel like throwing a party. This is the first in a series narrated by Sheriff Walt Longmire, a gruff widower, Vietnam veteran, and good man. He’s just going through the motions in his life, when the murder of a high school student jolts him. The young man had been accused, along with some friends, of abusing a disabled girl. At the trial, they were dealt easy sentences and walked free. Now it appears that someone is out for revenge. Walt’s deputy is Vic, a smart, tough gal whom he knows he’s lucky to have hired. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s lifelong best friend, becomes a suspect in the case, which introduces some unusual tension into their friendship. Even so, Henry sets out to wake Walt from his stupor, by starting him on an exercise program and attitude realignment. In this great debut, even the secondary characters leap off the page. I’m ready to move to Wyoming. The sheriff’s lovably curmudgeonly voice and wonderful dry wit make me want to spend more time with this fellow.