This is a book about character and place. The murder mystery moves the story forward, but is used mostly to tell us about the character of Gabriel DuPre. In fact, it doesn’t really work well as a murder mystery because its solution comes mostly from a deus ex machina in the form of a local quasi-shaman / full time drunkard named Benetsee. DuPre solves the mystery, but only after getting not so subtle hints from Benetsee. Even then it wasn’t clear (to me) how DuPre made the logical leap that led him to the solution.
No matter. What counts most in this story is the character of DuPre and “his women”: his daughters and his woman friend, Madeleine. DuPre is basically an angry redneck living amongst angry ignorant rednecks. Not a promising start, but DuPre stands above the rest by being smarter and more self-aware and by having the kind of personal code and integrity that you might expect of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood character. Much is made in the book blurbs and reviews of the novel that DuPre is mixed French-Indian, and it’s certainly true that Bowen goes to lengths to make sure we don’t forget that: DuPre thinks and talks with a kind of French-Creole rhythm and is constantly musing on the history of both the French voyageurs and the defeats and massacres inflicted on native Americans. Nonetheless, he’s basically a shit-kicker like the rest of the people in Toussaint Montana and not a person you’d like to spend any time with; not, that is, if you are the sort of urban college-educated person most likely to have read this book. But his self awareness and intelligence make him an almost likable character.
His younger daughter, Maria, is a 14 year old faux-rebellious honor student who seems to be left home by herself a lot while DuPre spends his nights with Madeleine. Maria is one of the more interesting characters in the novel, but is not a very believable character. I think Bowen tried too hard (or maybe not hard enough) to have her be a smart and basically ‘good’ girl, but the result is that she’s just a little too good to be true.
The story seemed pretty contrived, as though Bowen had made a plot outline, carefully highlighting the main points, and didn’t have the time or the energy to fill in the details that would have made it seem like something other than a made-up tale. The elements are: rich decacent family with pseudo-ranch, old plane wreck with one skull too many, useless brain-dead sheriff, local drunkard with supernatural insights, cattle-brand inspector with a fiddle and a creole accent and an attitude. Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
Still, despite its flaws I liked this book a lot. The DuPre character is pretty interesting, as long as you don’t have to be in the same room with him.