Montana, by Gwen Florio, The Permanent Press, 2013. 256 pages, $28.
It appears that Lola Wicks is going to become a familiar character in this part of the world, and that the corpses are going to keep piling up.
Lola is the main character in Gwen Florio’s debut novel, “Montana,” and its sequel, “Dakota,” which was published this spring. Lola is a former foreign correspondent, accustomed to covering violence, ethnic strife and corruption, who comes to Montana for a short, peaceful visit.
Except of course that she soon stumbles into all manner of violence, ethnic strife, corruption and corpses.
I suppose I should be reviewing “Dakota” at this point, but my reading habits are haphazard and I am cheap. I found “Montana” at a garage sale this summer, which told me the time was ripe. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a copy of “Dakota,” too.
I used to be a bit of a snob regarding mystery novels. I hardly read fiction for a couple of decades, and I couldn’t understand the appeal of mysteries, which seemed so ephemeral and unserious.
But our tastes and habits change as we get older. I used not to like tomatoes, if you can believe it. And I realized some years ago that no number of “difficult” books was going to make me any smarter, and that escaping into the pages of a brisk thriller for a little while was a pleasure not to be scorned.
The best single work of Montana mystery has to be Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” Set in old Butte, “Red Harvest” is the most hard-boiled, amoral, cold-blooded book I’ve ever read. Don’t even try counting the corpses.
Montana’s best living mystery writer, for my money, is Jon Jackson, also the creator of my favorite gumshoe, Mulheisen. The detective, following the trajectory of Jackson, starts in Detroit in the early novels and gradually makes his way to Montana, always dogging the Mob.
James Lee Burke, I probably don’t need to tell anyone, is also damned good, as is his main hero, Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux, who alternates between New Iberia, La., and Montana. I haven’t read any of Burke’s books starring Sheriff Hackberry Holland, but they’re on the list.
I am also an admirer of Sandra West Prowell, of Billings, who made a splash with her mystery novels starring investigator Phoebe Siegel. I read “The Killing of Monday Brown,” which was as sure-footed in its exploration of the seedier parts of old Minnesota Avenue as it was on the Crow Reservation.
There are others, including’s A.B. Guthrie’s “Wild Pitch,” and the poet Richard Hugo’s “Death and the Good Life.” There are even more I have missed, no doubt, owing to my haphazard reading.
All of which is to say that I think fans of Montana mystery novels will welcome Lola Wicks into the fold. She is tough, cynical and often quite funny. She is a natural for Florio, who was herself a foreign correspondent for many years before ending her reporting career with the Missoulian.
Lola ends up in Montana after her editor at a Baltimore newspaper orders her home from Afghanistan. The editor tells her the paper is closing all its foreign bureaus, but he may have a job for her in one of its suburban offices. I thought the editor was going to be the first corpse, but Lola just stomps off, making plans to visit an old reporter friend in Montana. It is supposed to be a short visit before Lola heads back to Afghanistan on her own hook, thinking if she completes the big story she was working on she can persuade the paper to let her stay in Kabul.
Lola has barely arrived in the fictional town of Magpie, near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, before she discovers that her friend has been shot to death near her cabin in the hills outside of town.
And we’re off. You can mess with the mystery genre in all kinds of stylistic ways, but you’ve got to keep the plot moving like a freight train. A mystery should keep you awake a little longer than planned at night, make you think during the day of getting back to it.
Florio delivers, salting the narrative with just enough descriptions of place and evocations of small-town Montana to give the reader a feel for the place and the people, and to show how Lola herself settles into what is for her a strange world.
The characters — and of course every single one of them could be the killer — are deftly drawn, from Johnny Running Wolf, the frighteningly slick Blackfeet Indian running for governor, to Verle Duncan, an older but beguiling rancher.
One scene was a bit much, veering too closely to romance-novel prose. It involves a dinner at Verle’s place, a house whose interior might have been lifted from one of those McMansion-in-the-woods features favored by Western magazines. This is a rancher with a live-in chef who whips up a gourmet meal to accompany the fine wine. And sure enough, Lola and Verle traipse off to the boudoir after their meal. Florio salvages things, however, by having Lola notice that old Verle slipped a little blue pill into his mouth after dinner.
Florio captures the friendly but insular attitude of small-town people and the slightly strained, slightly mysterious relations between Indians and whites, and God love her for allowing Lola to think that all the anti-meth billboards “were high on the growing list of things she disliked about Montana.”
One more small thing, though: Among the many customs Lola is forced to learn is that you never ask a rancher how much land he owns. I’ve seen this in other books, too, and I’ve been told it plenty of times. But what hard-bitten reporter would ever believe there’s a question you “can’t” ask?
I’ve asked the question many times. Some ranchers politely declined to answer, but a fair number have fessed up with no qualms. Keep asking, Lola.
In the end, you will be shocked to learn, Lola discovers who the killer was, and who else was in on it. But what is almost as satisfying is to watch how Lola slowly comes to an understanding of this strange new place. Fittingly, she receives most of her education from two critters, a horse and a dog, left behind by her murdered friend.
I should add that I’ve have never met Florio, though we may have talked on the phone and we exchanged a few emails when she worked at the Missoulian and I was still with the Billings Gazette.
We made our escape from corporate journalism about the same time, she to pursue fiction, I to try this new thing on the Web. I admire what she’s doing and I’m a little envious, and I look forward to “Dakota” and Lola’s continuing adventures.