The time has come for the final Literary Lunchbox post in the 3-Rs (reading, reviewing, and ranking) for the 2015 Best First Novel by an American Author Edgar. The official Edgar will be awarded in NYC on April 29, but the anticipation is building right here. The final entry is Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie. Set in Arizona and featuring Native American PI Rodeo Grace Garnet, the book won the Tony Hillerman Prize, a $10,000 advance and publication by St. Martin’s Press. I loved Tony Hillerman’s work, devouring his Leaphorn and Chee books when I discovered them in the 1980s. He received practically every mystery writing award there was to win, and was president of the Mystery Writers of America. Hillerman passed away in 2008, a sad day for mystery lovers. All this is leading up to why I was very interested in reading Bad Country.
My overall impression is that CB McKenzie is no Tony Hillerman – but then, who could be? Hillerman’s books were police procedurals, but steeped in the ways of the Navajo and other tribes. There is a lot of looking, thinking and talking in Hillerman’s books. They have a lot of space for subtlety. Not so much for McKenzie.
Some critics have called Bad Country “cowboy noir,” and that’s a particularly apt description. The writing is spare, the violence is gritty and real, the men are hard although not all bad, and the women are, for the most part, demons. One plot point features the characteristics of ten Native American tribes, but otherwise, Native American culture doesn’t have much impact on the book. It’s more like the movie Chinatown, with Rodeo Grace Garnet in the JJ Gittes role.
Here’s where the plot begins: Rodeo’s a tough, hard-living PI in a small town in Arizona, with a bad ex-girlfriend who happens to be the good sheriff’s daughter, and a faithful dog. Someone’s murdered an Indian man on Rodeo’s doorstep. And someone else has gunned down a teenager in a drive-by; that teen’s grandmother hires Rodeo to look into it, and the game is afoot.
These two seemingly straight-forward crimes are just the respective tips of two different icebergs, and along the way to solving them both, Rodeo faces disillusionment and death more than once. By the end, more than one good guy is dead, as are multiple bad guys, but Rodeo has kept more evil at bay, Rodeo’s dog is okay and we suspect that the chemistry between him and the lady vet is building into something good for book #2.
Here’s what I liked about Bad Country: Excellent main character, knotty plot, noir tough, and a great dog. Not in love with: Too many characters with too many problems and too much plot stuffed into one book. Also, use some quote marks, already.
So where to rank it? Definitely above The Life We Bury and Invisible City. Definitely below Dry Bones in the Valley. Shovel Ready was more inventive, Murder at the Brightwell was more assured and better written. So Bad Country goes on my ranking at #4, making Dry Bones in the Valley my winner!
- Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
- Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
- Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver
- Bad Country by CB McKenzie
- Invisible City by Julia Dahl
- The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Cover art for Bad Country: No complaints. The car features in the plot, as does the desert locale, and the typography is spot-on. Title: Also appropriate.