Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mining for Murder: Dana Hand, DEEP CREEK

The daffodils are about to open, and it's time to turn the soil in the vegetable garden. Each morning there are tracks of deer along the edge of the road, and if I look carefully, I find them also on the garden path. Over the past few months, I've learned to recognize the call of the pileated woodpecker, which hammers its way to breakfast each morning.

But even among all this turning of season and occasion, there's time to reflect. I've spent the past six weeks or so mulling over an unusual book that came my way as winter faded: DEEP CREEK, by Dana Hand. "Dana Hand" is actually a pair of authors, Will Howarth and Anne Matthews, better known for history and literature in the past. And it's tempting to guess that the quick windows of narrative in their murder mystery reflect changes of pen hand -- but I've come to see the style of this book as a deliberate mimicry of what it's like to live in a rural landscape among people you rely on, but may not know, in the sense of knowing someone's past, in detail. One moment you assume the person is much like yourself; the next week, you notice a habit or you ask a question and something strange and wild spills out.

Joe Vincent is a married Idaho lawman, a police judge with a wife and children and a role in a growing town in 1887. As he fishes with his 12-year-old daughter, the girl discovers a corpse in the water. And soon Joe himself is also hooked, snagged, entangled with an investigation of the deliberate deaths of more than thirty Chinese  gold miners. Hired by a representative of the Sam Yup Company, Joe takes Lee Loi to the raw Idaho/Oregon countryside, along with a local guide -- not the one Joe thought he'd hired, but instead the reserved and very capable Grace Sundown, a m├ętis woman in trousers, skilled in more ways than Joe can comprehend and very, very angry with him. That's already rough news, as the trio enters the Snake River canyon. And Joe isn't aware of Grace's deepest waters:
Grace Sundown lay awake, gazing at Orion. Joe and Lee Loi had again set their bedrolls on either side of her. She did not protest their chivalry, although Lee, unconscious, looked about six. He'd done well, everything considered. She shut her eyes, but then she saw far too many rocks, rapids, and close calls.

Oh, how she'd lied, back at the Lewiston docks ... Six days on the river, and still sleep would not come. She turned her head. Joe was watching her. Grace went back to admiring the Idaho stars. The Snake allowed no reprieves, nor did she.
The tensions in the threesome are dwarfed by the dangers they face, for the murderers are close by, led by a sociopath who enjoys the fears of those he preys upon. Will the deaths of the Chinese satisfy him? Not a chance. All too soon, Joe is dodging the man named Evans. Joe's friend Henry Stanton tells him bluntly what he's up against: "The man is a natural predator. ... He enjoys their fear. Inside, Evans is cold, dark, and hollow. He sees the whole world as a threat and strikes first. Doctors call it moral alienation. In layman's language, born bad."

And here is the classic pairing of a good man with good friends -- Joe Vincent, whose biggest character fault may be his committed generosity -- and a "born bad" man whose bent for evil is even more powerful because it isn't rooted in insanity, but instead in choice and desire.

What Joe knows and what Grace can do are mysteries revealed in short bursts of action and risk. If your idea of a "historical mystery" is something quiet and mannered, this rough Western pursuit of crime and justice will shake you and awaken you to the fierce reactive power of lust and greed in a landscape once believed to be threaded with enough gold to make its people all wealthy.

But here, from a time when the case begins to crack, is a glimpse inside Joe Vincent's thinking. And how familiar it is, after all, in terms of the most determined sleuths of crime fiction to date:
The only way he could know a case was to put it on paper. Fact pursued and captured, stacked in lists, circled and underlined. Meaning distilled to pattern, pattern locked into summary, every summary indexed. The smartest lawyers he knew could cit and quote with never a glance at the page. Joe needed a blueprint, root cellar to roof beam. He needed his notes. For the Snake River case, he needed a whole new ledger. In a Portland stationery shop, he ran a finger down the shelf, considering, and chose one in pale buff paper, lined, with fine black rules, left and right, and dark blue page numbers. Sturdy dark red covers, no label. A harvest book, the clerk said, for farmers and ranchers. Joe liked that kind of company. He was looking to plant and gather himself.
There are scenes of lingering brutality here, balanced with deep seams of discovery and determination. It wasn't an easy book to read -- I argued with the form, I felt wrenched among Joe and Grace's histories, and I ached for the racism and brutality revealed -- but it was emphatically worth it. And Joe's solution to the murder case becomes a law-and-order episode with shattering ramifications.

I hope the writing team of Dana Hand will dip again into the shock and shiver of the cold cases of our past. And I look forward to discovering their next form, along with their powerful sense of crime and justice.

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