Written by J Todd Scott — It’s hard to believe this well-crafted crime thriller is a debut novel. The author’s experience as a DEA agent lends authority to his prose, and his meticulous rendering of the Big Bend country south and east of El Paso, Texas, and its fictional town, Murfee, takes you to that dusty back-of-beyond. Outlaw country.
The two key voices in this multiple point-of-view novel are those of 17-year-old Caleb Ross, son of Big Bend County’s despotic sheriff, who’s called ‘the Judge’, and new deputy Chris Cherry, once a local high school football star. Caleb’s mother disappeared 13 months before the novel begins, and he’s convinced his father killed her, which colours their every interaction. Cherry lost his future in football when he blew out a knee and still isn’t sure where his new future lies.
Caleb and Cherry are lost souls, floating under the brilliant West Texas stars, staying out of the deadly orbit of the sheriff, and trying to find out what kind of men they will be. Scott does not give them an easy path, and you’ll hold your breath as they are repeatedly tested.
These two narrators are joined by another deputy, Duane Dupree – a living, violence-addicted, coked-up example of why it’s best to steer clear of the Judge’s snares. You also hear from the Judge himself. One way or another, he knows everyone’s secrets.
Not only are these male characters convincingly portrayed, but Scott does a good job with his women too. You get part of the story from the perspectives of Caleb’s friend America, his teacher Anne, and Cherry’s live-in girlfriend Melissa. America is desperate to find her missing brother, a border patrol agent. It’s possible he was involved with the cartels just across the river. It’s possible he was involved with the Judge. It’s possible he’s alive. It’s most possible she will never know.
Teacher Anne has decamped from Austin after a scandal involving a student, and the interested friendship of Deputy Cherry has not escaped the Judge’s notice. Anne suspects the Judge brought her to Murfee for himself, and his overtures are not welcome. Cherry’s girlfriend Melissa hates West Texas, hates Murfee, and Cherry believes it won’t be long until she hates him as well. Anne’s good nature is refreshing after Melissa’s chronic dissatisfaction, but even a casual friendship may be too big a risk. These problems are believable and compelling enough for the characters to take the actions they do.
You have to root for Deputy Cherry, who has a bad habit of actually trying to investigate stuff. Early on, he responds to a call from a rancher who’s found a dessicated corpse and, while the Judge’s other deputies would gladly assume the deceased was ‘just another beaner’ who died in the desert, Cherry isn’t sure. Something about the position of the body makes him look twice, then insist on a full forensic investigation. The sheriff never says no, but he doesn’t encourage Cherry’s curiosity, either. Because of the extent of the sheriff’s corruption as well as his confidence in his absolute authority, he reacts to Cherry’s probes like a horse responds to flies. They warrant a twitch, maybe, but no more.
Very late one night when Cherry is patrolling the empty reaches of the county, he stops a speeding SUV, an action he questions from the moment he lights up his bar flashers. Inside are a man and a woman who are definitely out of place. Good instincts tell him not to mention this episode, and a few days later the burned out SUV is discovered with the man dead, the woman barely alive. Then the chili really starts bubbling.
Scott keeps these various plot threads alive and moving at a clip. I never lost interest for a moment and even forgive a little deus ex Máximo at the end. (Not a typo. Trust me.)
GP Putnam’s Sons
CFL Rating: 5 Stars