I believe Colorado crime fiction is having a moment.
That’s not what I mean.
I’m talking about the dramatic setting.
I mean, right now.
In August, it was the release of Erik Storey’s Nothing Short of Dying.
This month, it’s Kevin Wolf’s The Homeplace. (Today as a matter of fact; Sept. 6 is the official publication date.)
In October, it’s Barbara Nickless’ Blood on the Tracks.
What else is unusual?
All three are debuts.
And I mean, these three books make for a fascinating triple header.
And they take major advantage of the Colorado landscape. Storey’s is all Western Slope—Grand Junction to Steamboat to Leadville and back to G.J.
Nickless is all Front Range—Denver, Fort Collins and a splash of the eastern plains (get ready for your close-up, Wiggins).
And then Wolf is all farm country, way out east in a fictional town in a fictional county but just as “real” as they come. Dry and windy, too.
I’ll go west to east to give you a flavor.
Nothing Short of Dying is big. It’s rough. It’s tough. It’s a full-throttle thriller led by a guy named Clyde Barr, who has his own moral code. He’s a loner. He’s a fighter. Yes, we hear the echoes of Jack Reacher (I’m dying to know if Storey is tired of hearing the comparisons between Barr and Reacher) but Barr’s motivations, to me, are built on a stronger foundation.
The plot is less cartoony, too, than Lee Child’s stuff (as addictive as those cartoons might be). Clyde Barr is a man who keeps his promises and he’s made one to his sister, Jen. When she needs help, Barr goes looking for her. He teams up with a woman he meets along the way and calls on old friends including one guy named Zeke, a pal from his days in a Mexican prison.
Barr is not all bad boy. He’s got his weapons, sure, but he’s also got paperbacks by Friedrich Nietzsche and H. Rider Haggard. He can be sensitive when the time is right, but you do not want to piss him off.
The backdrop for all this action is pure Colorado. “Sandy escarpments rose up on the left and forested mesas hugged the right until we dropped off a hill and headed into the Rifle valley. The river was wider here, with waves shimmering in the sun. What were once hay fields in the flat floodplains were now natural gas pads, pipe yards, compressor stations, and gas plants. One of the latter spewed a flame sixty feet in to the air. Closer to town, the cattle pastured I’d known as a kid were buried forever under asphalt and pavement, with house and apartment complexes built on top.”
Hey, Colorado ain’t all beautiful.
(I already reviewed Storey’s book on my book review blog, here. This includes an interview with Storey.)
I am really taken with this ambitious story, which starts out as a thriller, morphs into a mystery, and turns back again into a movie-ready action-packed finish.
Railroad Police Special Agent Sydney Rose Parnell is one complex and interesting character. She sees dead people, for one thing. But don’t think paranormal. Uh, hardly. These are “skills” she doesn’t necessarily want. She’s haunted for many reasons, including the fact that she worked in corpse retrieval during the war in Iraq. She was also involved in a situation covering up atrocities. The past is chasing her down. (A common theme in all three of these books.)
The plot here involves the murder of young woman who was known for her kindness to hobos and drifters. She is murdered in vicious fashion. The killer scrawls bloody hobo symbols nearby so Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde (yes, again, Clyde) are pulled into the investigation. Clyde is a great character, too. He’s got his own darkness. Something is broken inside him, too. Clyde is absolutely one of the best-developed dog characters I’ve ever met in a book. But he doesn't overshadow Sydney Rose.
After a big scene where they stop and search a freight train, they think they’ve got their man—or do they? The guy in custody seems like the obvious culprit but based on the number of pages left to read we know there are some problems coming and they start rushing at Sydney in waves. The hunt leads to big-picture conspiracies and into the deadly lair of white supremacists and ultimately into a terrifying confrontation with a predator during a snowstorm in, yes, Wiggins. In the end, there is blood on the tracks and many other places, too.
Cue the movie for this one. And don’t just take my word for it, check the great advance blurbs from Vikki Pettersson, Jeffery Deaver, and Hank Philippi Ryan, among others.
Blood on the Tracks is already reaching readers ahead of its launch next month; check the reviews already rolling in from a Kindle promotion for early readers.
“Barns and ranch houses gave over to businesses as I drove into town. A single traffic light swayed forlornly above the empty street. I drove past a dry goods store, a saddle shop and a single-marquee theater, all with Closed Please Come Again signs in the windows. Near the end of the block, red neon blinked through the snow. A grinning cowboy became visible, holding aloft a flashing beer stein.”
That small-town flavor connects right over to The Homeplace.
Of the three books here, this is the quietest, the most serene. But it does not lack for suspense.
The Homeplace won the Tony Hillerman Prize in the fall of 2015 (the prize goes to an unpublished writer of a mystery that captures the southwest flavor of Hillerman’s work).
What’s hard to believe is that The Homeplace is the work of someone from the unpublished ranks. But those of us who have been around Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers know that’s true—and also know that Kevin has long turned out beautiful stories with clear-eyed prose.
The Homeplace features Chase Ford, who is coming home to Comanche County, where there’s “forty miles of dirt for every mile of blacktop.” He’s a former basketball star and he’s also the first of four generations of Ford men to put Comanche County in the rearview mirror. At least, that is, until now. Ford is as deeply troubled as Clyde Barr and Sydney Rose Parnell. And all three of these folks share a strong streak of stoicism, too.
In addition to Ford, there’s a full small-town ensemble cast. Wolf jumps easily from perspective to perspective. There’s Birdie Hawkins, a game warden for the Department of Wildlife. There’s Mercy Saylor, who works in the café in Brandon, and deputy sheriff Paco Martinez. There’s also Ray-Ray Jackson, who lives on the edges of society.
The sky is big and the wind blows, but life in the small town has a trapped, closed-in feeling. Complexities abound. And Wolf’s writing is uniformly calm and unsentimental, as when Chase and Mercy reconnect in the café for the first time since he disappeared over the horizon to play big-league basketball. “Quiet slipped into the room and took the empty chair at their table. Pans and pots clanged in the kitchen. Dishes loaded with eggs and bacon slid over the front counter, and the cash register drawer opened and shut. They both stared out the window, content in that minute to say nothing.”
The Homeplace is billed a mystery—dead body in the first few pages and all of that. There is a “who done it?” But with its weight and depth, The Homeplace could easily be read as straight novel, characters and setting first.
“As the first spikes of orange painted the gray morning, Chase spotted a deer at the edge of the field. No chance it would scent him. Through the binoculars, Chase could tell it was a big deer. The broken tine on the buck’s wide antlers and its graying muzzle meant it was an old bachelor, most likely run off from the herd by the younger bucks to live out what years it had left on its own.”
Yes, this is Colorado, too—way out on the windblown plains where the inimitable Kent Haruf (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) set his novels.
I wish Haruf was still alive to read The Homeplace. He would recognize the setting.
This is also Gregory Hill country—East of Denver and the Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles.
Congrats to Storey, Nickless and Wolf for putting some terrific new characters in motion against one of the best backdrops going—good old Colorado.