Murder mystery takes readers deep into the Missouri Breaks

BonesIn the summer of 2013, when I was working on a story for the Montana Quarterly about the Shonkin Sag and Lost Lake, the Sag’s most spectacular geological feature, I was continually amazed at how little known they were.

I made a point of asking every native Montanan I ran into, including a handful of native Montanans who also happened to be geologists, about the Shonkin Sag, located southeast of Great Falls.

A few people had heard of it; nobody I spoke with had been there. And when I started Last Best News, my story on the Sag ran on the first day, accompanied by John Warner’s magnificent photos. It remains one of the most popular stories in the two-year history of this site.

I mention all this by way of indicating how thrilled I was to be reading Bill Vaughn’s novel, “Making Bones,” and seeing a reference early in the book to the ranch owned by the central character, Elizabeth “Izzy” Sain, whose place is south of the Missouri River, referred to here as the Misery:

“They passed by Izzy’s kitchen garden and the orchard, surrounded by eight-foot deer fencing, then over a rise. On the other side they dropped down into the Shonkin Sag. The Misery had flowed here for a while after the last Ice Age until it wandered into its present course ten miles north. Near the Circle Ten’s main gate was a 250-foot cliff that had once been the bed of a waterfall, a thundering spectacle Izzy wondered if anyone had been around to appreciate. Did the first people here go there to get married?”

So yes, this was a novel that sucked me in hard. Besides the references to the Sag and Lost Lake, there are spot-on descriptions of the Missouri River and the Missouri Breaks, and lots of good portraits in passing of the people who live in that beautiful but tough land.

Did I mention the plot? It centers on a series of thefts of Cretaceous dinosaur and marine fossils, a subject I got uncomfortably familiar with during my reporting years at the Gazette. The big difference was that my stories involved no murders, while this book delivers several inventive slayings.

Vaughn, a busy magazine writer who has published a few books of nonfiction, lives on the Clark Fork River 10 miles downstream of Missoula. I had previously been aware of him mostly as the intelligent, highly opinionated proprietor of the Dark Acres blog. Especially good was his frequent, merciless criticism of my former masters at Lee Enterprises.

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I was expecting a lot from “Making Bones” (available only on Kindle), and it was even better than I had hoped. It’s a murder mystery that moves along briskly but is not afraid to slow down for some evocative scene-setting or ruminations on the nature of the Missouri Breaks region and its inhabitants.

There is some great history here, too—though I haven’t had time to determine whether it really was history or more invention. One can only hope that his macabre digression on John Osborne, a frontier doctor who went on to be the first Democratic governor of Wyoming, is true.

Anyway, as for that plot. The first corpse we encounter is that of a fossil hunter who is slain just as he and his brother have finished extracting a priceless skull from a bluff overlooking the Misery. The murderer, whose weapon is a bow-and-arrow, appears to be a Native American.

The fossil hunter’s remains are discovered by Izzy, during a float on the river with a gang of her hard-partying friends and her sort-of boyfriend, Mark Porta, a Bureau of Land Management ranger from Back East.

We learn that Izzy grew up in the area and has been exploring the Breaks since she was old enough to ride a horse. She even has her own hand-drawn map of that portion of the river, showing the “twisting brown lines that were the endless canyons and coulees of the Missouri Breaks.”

Vaughn

Bill Vaughn

That’s why Mark manages to have her deputized as part of the murder investigation, and why the book thereafter meanders up and down the river and into the Breaks, introducing the reader to all sorts of characters. These include the overweight sheriff, Smudge Iverson, and a reclusive Vietnam vet by the name of Benteen, who lives so far off the grid that he listens to heavy metal on a boom box powered by a solar panel.

About the only thing most everybody has in common is their disdain for the BLM, which Izzy’s boyfriend bears without a trace of resentment. It’s one of his many admirable qualities and you can’t help but believe that Izzy is on the right path as she slowly comes to believe that he might be worthy of her much-sought-after charms.

There is plenty here that is familiar in the genre: the malevolent killer, the heroine’s periodic brushes with death, the false leads and the bumbling cop outsmarted by the resourceful civilian.

What makes Vaughn’s book stand out is the consistently superior writing and his deft touch with local detail, at its best in the chapter devoted to the farm implement demolition derby that Izzy throws on her ranch every year. And then there’s Izzy’s trip to Canada to visit a creationist dinosaur museum, which is creepier than some of the murders.

Again and again there is the river and its landscape, always described so well and truly, as here: “When the cliffs gave way to bottom land they passed one abandoned homestead after another, the barns and shacks leaning away from the wind, rot and sage and prickly pear taking back what these luckless sodbusters a century ago had tried to turn into Eden. Salty soil, drought, locusts, floods, fires, hail—the whole catalogue of Biblical rat storms—had finally convinced every one of them that the Breaks belonged to Satan, and he was welcome to the damn place.”

And here’s Vaughn’s description of one of the Missouri’s most unusual species: “Paddlefish were built on skeletons made of cartilage without a single bone. She remembered the one Uncle Vern mounted above his fireplace, the flesh so greasy even after a taxidermist stuffed it the thing leaked oil on the mantlepiece.”

Gems like those are scattered throughout the book. Let’s hope there’s more mayhem in Izzy’s future.

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