Sometimes my instincts for the neglected fail me. I picked a battered copy of the poet Richard Hugo’s 1980 murder mystery, Death and the Good Life out a discard pile in a thrift shop recently, and was so certain it was long out of print that I read the whole thing before bothering to check. Turns out that it’s been reissued twice–by the small Montana press, the Clark City Press, in 1991 and by the University of Idaho Press in 2003–and is still in print.
Oh, well, it made for an entertaining evening in any case. Hugo’s sleuth, an ex-Seattle cop named Al Barnes now working as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana, investigates two cases where the victims both died from multiple axe blows to the head. They soon prove quite unrelated. One he manages to solve in just a few days–the other ultimately takes the better part of a year, and winds up involving cowboy-sized helpings of Freudian psychology–sexual jealousy, twins, incest, and sadism, just to name a few.
I’m not a big mystery fan, so I can’t speak with authority on this point, but it seems to me that there are only a couple of things that make a mystery worth reading: good characterization, good atmosphere, and intriguing twists–and in that order. By that standard, Hugo scores 66%. Al Barnes is an entertaining narrator. He’s an experienced cop but quite a softy at the core–he earned the nickname “Mush-Heart” for his tendency to let off speeders for the slimmest excuse. He’s living with Arlene, a local bartender and single mom, but his eyes haven’t stopped wandering: “What a nice world it is when you get old enough to see how attractive women are at all ages,” he comments at one point.
Hugo moved to Missoula, Montana in the mid-1960s and taught creative writing at the University of Montana for most of the rest of his life (he died of leukemia in 1982). Although Missoula is a decent-sized town of almost 70,000 people (probably closer to 50,000 back when Hugo lived there), it’s surrounded in all directions by lots and lots of sparsely populated forests, mountains, and high prairies. It’s a good place to get away from things, but being a good day’s drive from any big city, it can also seem like a prison. From what I’ve read of Hugo’s life, it took him a while to get the feeling that he had to be someplace else out of his system.
Al Barnes has certainly got the feeling out of his system: “I was sure it was smooth sailing from here on out. I put on twenty pounds in fourteen months or so in Plains and settled back into a life of peace and quiet.”
Until one–then two–people wind up with axe-holes in their skulls. Tapping into Barnes’ big-city detective experience, the sheriff appoints him chief investigator. He spends much of the rest of the book outside of Plains–first in Idaho and then in Portland, Oregon. I won’t attempt to summarize the plot, since it struck me as no better than anyone else’s convoluted puzzle of motives and long-hidden secrets.
What raises the book to the slightly-better-than-average murder mystery level is Barnes’ narrative voice, which manages to be both world-weary and naive at the same time. Hugo definitely managed to capture that special laconic tone of a true man of the West: “Yellow Bear and I sat in mutual depression and silence for half an hour. We said a lot to each other in that half hour, and we didn’t break the silence once.”