October 23, 2014

Thumbs Sideways for ‘Murder at Thumb Butte’

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The Western mystery story is not as rare a phenomenon as you might think. The conventions of the mystery transfer pretty well to the Wild West, and many famous mystery writers cranked out westerns as well, back in the days when you could make a living writing for the pulps.

Contemporary author James D. Best carries on this tradition with his Steve Dancy stories. Steve is a former gun shop owner from New York City, transferred to the west where, although his primary concern is business, he has made a reputation as a gunman. I thought this approach added freshness to the whole enterprise. We often forget that cowboys shared a country and a time with men like Thomas Edison and Cornelius Vanderbilt, but Steve Dancy straddles both worlds.

Murder at Thumb Butte starts in Carson City, Nevada, where Steve and his friend Jeff Sharp are arguing about where to go next. Steve wants badly to go to Prescott, Arizona. There’s a man in Prescott who has some stock certificates, worthless in themselves, which could cause difficulty for Steve in a project he’s contemplating—using Tom Edison’s electric light to illuminate mines.

Unfortunately, Jeff already knows this man, who once slandered him in the vilest way possible. When they get to Prescott, Jeff loses little time in punching his old enemy and telling him he’ll kill him next time he sees him. When the man is found murdered the next morning out near Thumb Butte, with Jeff’s own rifle lying next to the body, he’s arrested for the murder by Constable Virgil Earp, and Steve has to set his mind to clearing his friend. With the help of another friend, Pinkerton agent Joseph McAllen, who comes to town with his daughter Maggie and a married couple who are also operatives, he sets about that project.

I thought Murder at Thumb Butte was pretty good, but not top level. My main problem was with the characters. I won’t say they’re poorly drawn, but they all share one common (and irritating) trait—touchiness. At each stage of the story, somebody’s mad at somebody else for some slight, real or perceived—even people we are told are old and faithful friends. If my friends were like that I think I’d just give up on friendship.

The historical setting is pretty well drawn, though I had some quibbles. Occasionally the author lapsed into neologisms, like “fantastic” to mean “outstanding” and “playing us” as a way of saying “deceiving us” (I should probably note that I don’t actually know that those terms were unknown in the 1880s. But they sounded wrong to me). Also the author talks as if the Earps and Doc Holliday (who also appears in the story) were nationally famous at that point in history, which according to my reading is not true. (Barry Goldwater’s grandfather, owner of a busy general store, is also a character in the book.)

Worth reading. I don’t recall serious bad language or adult situations.

Lars Walker is the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book, Troll Valley.

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