In The Spotlight: C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For a long time, the American West has been a popular setting for novels, even those that aren’t, strictly speaking, ‘Westerns.’ There’s definitely something about the setting that has unique appeal. Little wonder that there are plenty of contemporary novels set in the West. Let’s take a look at that setting today and turn the spotlight on C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country.

Rodeo Grace Garnet is a former rodeo champion who’s now making a living in the Tucson area as an occasional bounty hunter and small-time PI. His business comes to him mostly by word of mouth. One day, he hears from Luis Encarnacion, owner of the Twin Arrows Trading Post, that he has a new client. Her name is Katherine Rocha, and she wants Garnet to look into the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel.

Samuel was killed in a fall from a bridge, but there’s evidence to suggest that he might have been shot, and knocked off the bridge in that way. If he was shot, then his grandmother wants to know who was responsible. And Garnet soon finds that there’s more than one possibility. For one thing, Samuel could have been involved in Tucson’s drugs trade – always a dangerous occupation. In fact he has a record for selling marijuana at the local middle and high schools. There’s also the fact that his sister Farrah was killed in a hit-and-run incident a few months earlier. Could the two incidents be related? Certainly the family has what you might call a troubled history. Or, did Samuel perhaps witness another crime and pay the price for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

At the same time as Garnet is looking into this case, the police are investigating a series of other murders, all of Native Americans. In fact, one of the bodies is found not far from Garnet’s own property. So he has an interest in finding out who the killer is.

As Garnet soon discovers, the death of Samuel Rocha may very well have ties to some dangerous and well-connected people. Everyone seems to know that, too, so not many people are willing to talk to Garnet – not even those who like him. Even Luis Encarnacion, who told Garnet about the case in the first place, regrets it. He warns Garnet to stop asking questions and return his client’s money. Encarnacion goes as far as to offer to take on Garnet’s expenses, so he won’t be out any money. But Garnet refuses. By this time, he wants to know what happened to both Samuel Rocha and his sister. In the end, and after another death, he finds out the truth. It’s all connected to the complex network of relationships among the various characters, including Garnet, and to incidents in the past.

This novel is a modern Western, so there’s a strong sense of that culture. There are rodeo people, desert spaces, and so on. But it’s not the mythological ‘West’ that you might read about in a Zane Grey novel or see in a film. In this novel, the protagonist isn’t a lone lawman up against a band of ‘bad guys.’ It’s much more complicated than that. Still, there’s the sense of ‘rugged independence’ that’s characteristic of the Western. There’s also an authentic mix of the cultures that have made the American West what it is. There are Native Americans from different nations; there are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans; and there are more recent white and black arrivals.

The dialogue reflects this mix of cultures. Some characters speak Spanish (those sentences translated for readers who don’t speak that language), some speak Spanglish, and some include Native American words in their sentences (easily understandable from context). Others use more standard English.

This novel has some noir qualities. Many of the characters are not who they seem to be, and Garnet soon discovers that very few people can really be trusted. That includes those who are paid to enforce the law. Among other things, it’s a gritty look at the parts of Tucson that the tourists don’t see: dilapidated diners, homeless people, and the ‘down and out’ types who live in South Tucson.

It should also be noted that the violence in the novel isn’t all ‘off stage,’ nor is it glossed over. There are some nasty people involved in this case, who won’t stop at brutality and murder to get what they want, or to silence someone. People are afraid of them with good reason. That said, the violence isn’t drawn out. Still, it’s most definitely there. The language is consistent with the noir feel of this novel, too. Readers who prefer their crime fiction without a lot of graphic language and violence will notice this.

The story is told mostly in third person, from Garnet’s point of view. So we learn quite a lot about him. Like many modern Americans who live in Arizona, he’s got mixed Mexican and Native American heritage. He and his old dog live alone, but he doesn’t wallow in misery. He does his share of drinking; but readers who are tired of the demon-haunted, dysfunctional sleuth will be pleased to know that he’s not one. He’s intelligent, quick witted, and can be compassionate. He doesn’t go looking for trouble, as the saying goes, but he doesn’t shy away from it. It’s also worth noting that Garnet has quite a collection of guns. In his view of guns, he reflects a very common attitude in that part of the US. He’s not the ‘trigger happy’ type who goes into bars looking for someone to shoot. But he owns several weapons, is not afraid to use them, and sees no reason why he shouldn’t if necessary.

Bad Country is a gritty, noir story, set in and around modern Tucson. It has a distinctly Western atmosphere, and features a PI who’s very much a product of the mix of cultures in that area. But what’s your view? Have you read Bad Country? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 27 June/Tuesday, 28 June – Dead Angler – Victoria Houston

Monday, 4 July/Tuesday, 5 July – The Constable’s Tale – Donald Smith

Monday 11 July/Tuesday 12 July – Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic


Filed under Bad Country, C.B. McKenzie

28 responses to “In The Spotlight: C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country

  1. Tim

    I wonder what an author gains (or loses) by including non-English words, phrases, and sentences. The notion of including a simultaneous English translation seems awkward at best; however, I would have to see it in print before passing final judgment. My instincts, though, tell me that the author could have handled the multiculturalism differently. I know that I would have done it otherwise.

    • You make an interesting point, Tim, about using words and phrases from more than one language in a novel. For some readers, it might indeed seem awkward. I think it really is a matter of taste. It also, I believe, depends very much on the author’s skill at weaving those words and phrases in.

  2. I like modern-day Western stories and I love noir – sounds great! Thanks Margot 🙂

  3. I enjoy noir. A twist of modern-day Western might be fun, too. Hmm…maybe I’ll give this one a try.

  4. Don’t think this one’s for me, but I enjoyed your spotlight, as always. Would you say that foul langauge is a particular aspect of noir, then? Perhaps all these books I’ve thrown at the wall for what I consider to be the author’s poor language skills or laziness in use of vocabulary have actually been attempting to be noir… 😉

    • You know, that might be, FictionFan… 😉 Actually, you do make a very interesting point about language and noir novels. I haven’t looked at that specifically (i.e., I don’t have data on hand about it). But I suspect you’re quite probably right that foul language really goes along with many noir novels, especially modern ones. Sometimes it works well; sometimes it feels forced.

      And as for this book… well, no novel is for everyone. And now, you and I can both feel smug and self-righteous because I am in no way responsible for adding to your TBR. 😉

  5. Keishon

    This book sounds wonderful. Thanks Margot for spotlighting. I see you have Victoria Houston coming up along with the others. I’m curious about her books as they are cozies but that’s all I know. I’ll wait for your post. Off to look for this book. Thanks again.

  6. Col

    Not read it yet Margot – but it’s in one of the tubs and a bit closer to the top of the pile now, after your post!

  7. Another interesting book to add to my TBR list. Margot, thanks for an entertaining spotlight. I like the western element of the story.

  8. Margot, this has all the elements of a hybrid Western novel, if I can put it that, and plus it is a “gritty, noir story” that I’d most certainly like to read.

  9. It’s interesting that you mentioned how many things aren’t what they seem in this book, and that the book also isn’t a Western. Many things not bring what they seem is actually a common feature of Gothic literature, especially older books like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I wonder if the author played with the trope while creating the story.

    • That’s an interesting question, GtL. There are certainly some elements in it that one might argue are Gothic. But it’s not a modern-Gothic novel, per se – at least I wouldn’t argue that it is. You’ve given me ‘food for thought,’ though, for which thanks.

  10. I like the sound of the setting and the modern yet Western feel… if only I didn’t have quite so many other books waiting for my attention…

  11. tracybham

    You do a good job of selling this book, Margot. Even though it isn’t the type I usually would choose, there are definitely elements that sound interesting. Especially the setting.

    • Thanks Tracy. I try to be objective with these spotlights, so any selling is absolutely unintentional. But I do agree with you that the setting is quite a strong element in this story.

      • tracybham

        I knew that when I wrote it, Margot, and I thought about changing it but the truth is, it is the type of story I might avoid but yet your overview has sold me on it. I know your comments aim at covering pluses and minuses.

        • No worries, Tracy. I know what you meant. And I’ve had that happen to me too (including on your blog!). More than once, I’ve read an overview/review/etc. of a book that I normally wouldn’t try, but the post sold me on it.

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