“The Edge of the Crazies” by Jamie Harrison is the perfect crime noir comparison for “Cottonwood,” except that it’s really more Navy Blue because of the “star” light. Jamie is the daughter of Jim Harrison, a Montana notable, so her literary “uncles” are Matthiessen, Crumley, McGuane, Chatham, et al. She has been the editor of the Clark City Press. “Blue Deer” is quite transparently Livingston, the arts town that makes Missoula look morose. No David Lynch or Sweeney shenanigans here -- most of the main people are like Jamie: “Class X,” meaning highly educated but happy to work at low salaried meaningful labor like gardening and cooking, reporting and policing..
In contrast to “Cottonwood,” this is contemporary (well, ten years old now which probably makes some difference but not enough to worry about) and the criminals are not degenerates unless you have a low opinion of Hollywood and Manhattan. In fact, the two Blackwater brothers who form the spine of the crimes, both as victims and perps, rather suggest the Weinstein Brothers (NOT the Coen brothers), except that their women tend to be “tirebiters,” that is, the kind of pit bulls who run out from behind rural houses and puncture the tires of police cars. We don’t feel much grief or pity for any of them.
The sheriff in this town grew up here but has been gone and then has returned, as have the crime brothers, but the latter have become rich and famous so when the sheriff -- who has not -- wants to know where they are, he calls their agents -- though they never know either. But this is an egalitarian sort of town, so everyone drinks at the Blue Bat, the scene of much of the action. Upscale offices tend to be on the upper floors of renovated warehouses. Very nice paintings hang on the walls and everyone has computers, one of which is the first victim of the crime wave in this story. It is shot through the monitor by a .30-.30 from across the way. The writer seated at the keyboard is shot but not killed. The computer hard drive also survives to provide plot points.
Alice and Peter are living together, with Peter scraping most of the living by working for the local newspaper and Alice picking up catering work with the help of her friend, Edie. These are friends acquired by Jules Clement out in the “real world” who have followed him home. Jules became sheriff in part because his father had been the sheriff in his boyhood. Rita is a wild card, slender with a mass of auburn hair and very nice lingerie, which turns out to be a clue.
There is certainly plenty of sex, but it’s described the old-fashioned way: the lovers go home together, they unbutton and unzip, and that’s it until they either wake up happy and cook a fine breakfast in the sunshine or wake up with a hangover at 4AM and somehow end up naked and miserable on the porch. Before we get to the end, there are also plenty of bodies, which tend to be portrayed in the Montana way: toes bitten off by feral dogs or backbone exposed by ravenous magpies. The coroner is also the local family doctor. (I’m sure he washes his hands a lot.) When Jules, looking at the objects associated with a woman’s autopsy, asks, “What’s that little thing?” “An IUD,” says the doctor. “I put it in her myself.”
There are fistfights, predictable, sometimes with female sluggers. The scenery is exquisite (some people think the Crazies are more spectacular mountains than the Tetons), but there are no horses. I have never read about so many gourmet dinner parties in any other Western or mystery book and there is a great deal of drinking, specified in detail. But what makes this book a charmer is partly the stubborn naivete of Jules (who’s meant to become a series) and, more than that, the banter of the characters. Sometimes I never did figure out the slang, but I always got the irony. In Montana a “character” is not just someone in a book but someone colorful and maybe goal-driven enough to make them hard to cope with. They tend to have personality quirks. (When someone says, “You CHARACTER!” they are usually fond but a little exasperated.) In this book they have dreadful clothing taste, though the editor wears Prada. Even the sheriff is mostly around in t-shirt, jeans and tennie runners.
They say, “Oh, the local guys spend the winter bumping the uglies.” (We soon know specifics. One bonking session turns up on the security camera at the local ATM.) Ray Blackwater, one of the bad guys, remarks to Jules that he heard about him being involved in a case featuring a “farmer eaten by his cows.” Jules calmly corrects him: “It was pigs. Cows are not omnivorous.” These educated folks know a lot of stuff and use a lot of big words. They have attitude -- not quite cynical, more like wry.
This is also true of the police clerk, a sensible sixty year old “queen of the pink slips” (phone messages), who writes up the weekly police report to put in the newspaper. These reports are chapter headings and sometimes clues, but -- believe me -- they are also realistic in terms of small Montana town newspapers: “A report was recieved of an apparently unconscious man in the alley behind the Big Steer. An officer responded and the man said he was taking a nap.” If I’d written this, I’d have called the joint “The Bum Steer.” There’s a running gag about skunks: “A report was received of a skunk in a garbage can. An officer responded. He left the skunk in the can and the lid on the can. A note was left for the garbage men to be aware of the situation.” It’s characteristic that these reports are always in the passive voice.
As we work our way through Senior Skip Day, Annual Bird Counts, and river floats, information is threaded subtly through until when the final crime and the clinching clues show up, we’re there. The river floods at the end, but it seems like sort of an anticlimax. We end up in the Blue Bat where the wounded sheriff is tendered whiskey though he's hoping for some wide open spaces. In the next book of the series, “Going Local,” we find out the point of that flood.