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