Sunday, August 21, 2016

STEWBALL by Peter Bowen

"Benetsee," said Du Pré, "him not a comfortable person."

In Peter Bowen's Stewball, the old shaman Benetsee takes on a different role.

Previously Benetsee had been Du Pré's guide. Benetsee gave Du Pré the vision, the knowledge he needed, to survive.

Later, Benetsee's magic became more obvious. His actions hinted at his power.

But this time, Benetsee goes to war.

Bowen's Montana Mysteries almost always have to do with current events. In Stewball, Du Pré takes on a right-wing militia group. They use backwoods horse races to launder drug and crime money. They have killed an FBI informant who happens to be Du Pré's Aunt Pauline's husband.

Du Pré works with the FBI to get a beautiful black racehorse, Stewball. Named after a famous British racehorse, Stewball is special.

Only Du Pré's fourteen-year-old granddaughter Lourdes can ride the horse, so Lourdes goes to the races too. Du Pré puts her life at risk to seek revenge.

Bart's ranch hand Booger Tom takes on the role of a rich racehorse owner. Du Pré is his second-rate sidekick. Lourdes is their jockey. And all the time Benetsee hovers in the background.

You don't take on Benetsee, even with a dangerous WWII airplane, a rare well-armed fighter.

Stewball portrays the right-wing militia as especially dangerous. Du Pré and Booger Tom are clear that they don't love everything about the government, but they see the right-wing militias as a greater danger. (If that is a theme that bothers you, you are forewarned.)

Stewball is a wonderful book. I squirmed at the use of a fourteen-year-old girl to help bring revenge. But everyone in the story (including Lourdes) agrees to it, and I could believe they would.

For me, there is something special about Peter Bowen's Montana Mysteries, and this was one of the best of them.

To learn more about the Métis, you might want to look at my comments on earlier Montana Mysteries listed in the "Joe's Reading Lists" column at the right.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

DEATH OF A SWAGMAN by Arthur W. Upfield

Arthur Upfield's Death of a Swagman sneaks up on you.

I was reading along thinking, "Boy, this is an ordinary book," when suddenly I found Bony faced with a terrible event that tests his whole theory of investigation.

Australian Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) had always thought he could let events unfold. With enough observation, Bony can find the killer. The insane murderer will reveal himself.

Bony can come in after the murder of the itinerant cattle herder George Kendall; he can look over the scene; he can pretend to be an itinerant swagman himself; and finally he can work out who did the murder.

In most cases that has worked for Bony. He has always solved his cases. Many in the Australian police force consider him a genius at finding rural murderers.

Along the way, Bony learns about the meaning of hobo signs, the importance of windmills, and all kinds of other things unique to this region and its people.

Then there is another murder or maybe two, and an event that tests Bony to the core.

As often happens in the Upfield books, the story centers on an Australian landmark, a rural sand wall the locals call The Wall of China. The shifting sand wall, like the rabbit fences and other landmarks in earlier books, makes for a unique setting.

Bony's friendship with a local child, Rose Marie, is special.

For me, this was not the best of the Bony books. So far, that was a book called The Bone is Pointed. But Death of a Swagman is typical Bony. Bony continues to think way too much of himself. He continues to develop strong relationships with local people. And, in the end, he perseveres.

According to Fantastic Fiction, Death of a Swagman first appeared in 1946.

NOTE: Swagmen are itinerant workers who carry their bed rolls, their "swag," on their backs.

Friday, August 5, 2016



As I read Jane Haddam's Murder Superior, I found myself thinking, "How would you write a book like this?"

First you would plan the murder. You would create the nun's convention for the Sisters of Divine Grace meeting at St. Elizabeth's College in Philadelphia. It would occur around Mother's Day and celebrate the Virgin Mary. (Most of these books center on a holiday.)

You would diagram the buildings, decide what doors have to be propped open, what needs to be done to steal the poison from the college's storeroom, and how they need to make the ice sculptures in the kitchen.

You would write the preparatory sections describing the people, setting the scene, and planting the clues.

Then, and only then (in this case, exactly 50% into the book), you would stage the murder.

In other words, Murder Superior is a typical Jane Haddam Gregor Demarkian novel.

I enjoy these novels because of their characters, the ongoing characters and the characters created for this particular story.

Also, these books are often humorous. 

Murder Superior has all that, but it has an especially staged and unbelievable ending.

None of the Haddam books are particularly believable, but some are more so than others. And really, I don't much care. I enjoy watching the whole thing unfold. I enjoy seeing the ongoing characters. And I enjoy the interaction of the new characters.

The first paperback edition of this book appeared in April, 1993.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Peter Bowen, The Tumbler

In Peter Bowen's The Tumbler, money makes a major difference.

When Metis fiddler Gabriel Du Pré hides artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition, money causes murder.

A computer billionaire tries to buy the artifacts, first with gifts and then with money. He finally offers fifty million dollars. And the murders begin.

Du Pré doesn't have the artifacts. Benetsee does.

Du Pré's friend Bart is trying to salvage a wayward niece. She and her boyfriend are gymnasts, tumblers. They teach Du Pré's grandchildren (there are a passel of them) to do tricks on the jungle gym. 

The Tumbler is filled with threats, and those threats end in murder. Modern computer-oriented society (which Du Pré despises) comes head to head with what Du Pré calls, "Long time gone."

Two intertwined mysteries make it so that Du Pré has trouble sorting things out.

Along the way, someone attacks and tries to rob Bassman, one of Du Pré musical partners. Between books, Talley, the handicapped accordion player, died of an infection, a testimony to the dynamic nature of these characters. They grow, change, and die.

As always, the music plays a huge part in the story. Also, Metis history echoes through everything Du Pré does. In a sense, he is one of the people's historians with the history preserved, most of all, in the music.

I would have never heard of the Metis were it not for Peter Bowen. Bowen has been a Metis historian for me.

I find these books to be unique. I still have a couple to read to finish the series (in its present form).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

FATAL PURSUIT by Martin Walker

Martin Walker's Fatal Pursuit is a mixture of history and mystery.

The history wins out.

St. Denis, France, Chief of Police Bruno Courrèges becomes involved in the search for a rare automobile, a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic. Bugatti only made four 57SC Atlantics. One was destroyed in an accident, two are accounted for, and the fourth may be hidden somewhere near St. Denis.

Along the way, Bruno solves two murders involving the search for the car, negotiates a family feud, works to save a troublesome young juvenile in St. Denis, and arrests the son of the manager of the area's largest supermarket.

The supermarket manager's son threw rocks and injured a local banker's daughter. So Bruno and his patron, the mayor, find themselves caught in a local political imbroglio.

And of course, there is a love story. Bruno finds another beautiful young lover. (I'm beginning to think Bruno is promiscuous. He seems to hook up with young women who are bound to leave him.)

Walker sets the story in a rural part of France he clearly loves. We see the restaurants, the food stalls, the wonderfully cooked meals, the wine, the mushrooms, and the beautiful cars. We even see Bruno taking part as the navigator in a car in the local rally.

This book (like all the Bruno books) has a unique rustic setting. The usual characters are on hand. Even Bruno's former lover Isabelle shows up, and of course we again get to know Bruno's dog Balzac and his horse Hector.

The story is fiction, but much of the history is accurate. Walker changes a few details for the sake of the story. The Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic did exist. (It has not been found.) Walker says the famous people involved with the Bugatti, people who gave their lives in the French Resistance, are historically accurate.

If you are a lover of the Bruno Chief of Police stories (as I am), you should find this one to be good reading.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

SHOT IN DETROIT by Patricia Abbott

Why did it surprise me that one of the major characters in Patricia Abbott's Shot in Detroit was the city of Detroit?

Detroit artist and photographer Violet Hart struggles to make her mark in a struggling city.

She ends up photographing black corpses in Bill Fontenel's funeral home. Along the way, she falls in love with Bill; she befriends a bipolar street artist who sets up his creations along the river; and she finds out more about her missing father.

She also learns about herself and Detroit. Both are desperately resilient, struggling to succeed, and in Violet's case, willing to use a taboo subject to create art.

When someone murders her street artist friend, Violet keeps on taking photographs including a photograph of him. It is the only photograph of a white person in her collection.

Violet is not self confident (to use a sort of double negative). She struggles with whether she is doing the right thing. She wonders if love is more important than her art. And she has the sense that tragedy always waits in the wings.

The most interesting part of the story is in how she faces the book's final tragedy, but I will leave that for you to read.

At one point, Violet asks herself, "Did it always have to be about race? If I lived in Seattle or Minneapolis instead of Detroit, would I be free of it?" 

And the answer is, "No. She wouldn't be free of it in some other city. What happened in the United States in the last two weeks confirms that." But Shot in Detroit is about Violet, Bill, and Violet's street artist friend. Most of all, it is about the way they reflect the city of Detroit.

This book is filled with a realistic love of Detroit. It is set in 2011. Abbott is clear in her Afterword. The Detroit of today is not the Detroit of 2011. Detroit is now making what Abbott calls a "recent (and hopefully permanent) resurgence..."

I found myself asking if she could have published this book before the resurgence. She seems to care enough about the city that I wonder if she could have written so openly about the city's struggles before there was a light of hope.

I'm a small town person. I can't understand exactly what Patricia Abbott understands about Detroit, but I saw her commitment to the city in almost every word she wrote.

Fair warning--If you are looking for a cozy type book, this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for an excellent book by someone who loves her struggling city and who sees it with clear eyes, you will want to read Patricia Abbott's Shot in Detroit.

Monday, July 11, 2016


I've not been reading as much lately. I'm taking the Harvard edX courses on religious scripture. I audit the courses online for free and have found them enlightening. But they do cut into my reading time. I'll be back to reading more books in a few weeks. 

I will probably continue to read about a book a week. Occasionally I read books about which I do not write.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Peter Bowen's Montana Mysteries

Peter Bowen
Gabriel Du Pre
13. Nails (2006)
14. Bitter Creek (2015)

BADLANDS by Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen's Badlands has a different ending.

When a cult-like group buys the Eide ranch close to the badlands near Toussaint, Montana, they seem benign at first. Then seven of their members end up murdered.

The murders occur in various places a long way from Toussaint, but they coordinate with what is happening at the Eide's ranch.

To make things worse, the cult, led by a man called the White Priest, sells the ranch's cattle. They bring in buffalo. Buffalo are hard to control. They pose a risk to all the fences and cattle in the ranches around.

And cult members start trying to kill the badlands' wild horses (Gruillas). Gruillas go back to the time when the Spanish tried to occupy the area.

Metis fiddler Gabriel Du Pré can't take killing the horses. He risks his life to save them. Then he works with the FBI (three hilarious recurring characters) to try to find out what is happening at the ranch.

Du Pré goes to the holy man Benetsee for guidance. Like always, Du Pré sees in riddles. He knows he has a part in all this, but he doesn't know exactly what it is.

Along the way, Du Pré tries to extricate a woman and her children from the cult. He watches the suicide of the group who did the original killings, and all this leads to the strange ending of the book.

Bowen's Montana Mysteries always seem to tie in to the present. At one point,  Du Pré and one of the FBI agents Harvey "Weasel Fat" Wallace are talking about religious killings. Harvey says, "Yeah, things folks will do when they really believe."

I couldn't help but think about that quote in these weeks when we've had at least three religiously involved mass killings world-wide.

Badlands is different. Some may find the ending unsatisfactory. And, as always, you have to wade through the dialect and terse writing, something I especially enjoy.

If you like Peter Bowen's Montana Mysteries, you should like Badlands.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ASH CHILD by Peter Bowen

"Old Man," said Madelaine, "I am some mad, you. You tell me, do this, you don't tell me how."

Benetsee laughed, an ancient cackle.

"I, me, cannot do ever'thing for you. You plenty smart woman, you listen, the old ones, it will be all right," he said.

Peter Bowen's Ash Child is Madelaine's story.

Madelaine hears Benetsee's singers. Benetsee tells Madelaine that she is to solve the case. Madelaine even sees Benetsee perform magic Gabriel Du Pré has never seen before.

Severe drought hits the Wolf Mountains near Toussaint, Montana.

Fires, some of them intentionally set, ravage the mountains. Someone murders an iconoclastic old lady. And two goggle-eyed in-love teenagers end up murdered on the burning mountain.

 Du Pré can't stay out of Madelaine's case. He goes against Benetsee's instructions. He ends up almost being killed.

As always, these books have humor, strong recurring characters, a powerful sense of place, a loving retelling of French-Indian Metis history, and a plot that stresses the tensions between environmentalists and ranchers.

I am working my way through all of Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pré books. I read some of them years ago and loved them. But you know how it is? Work and other things got in the way of reading them all. Now retirement lets me have the time.

Ash Child is one of the better Gabriel Du Pré books so far.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


In Peter Bowen's Cruzatte and Maria, Gabriel Du Pré investigates the murders of canoers on the Missouri River.

It is coming upon the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Tourists and filmmakers want to document their travels. They want come to the most remote remaining part of the river. The Montana cattle ranchers who live there don't like it.

One documentary film maker hires Du Pré to play Cruzatte, the Metis fiddler who made the original trip with Lewis and Clark. Du Pré's daughter Maria ends up playing Sacagawea. Maria's fiancée directs the film.

Thanks to the holy man Benetsee, Du Pré finds historical artifacts including a ghost fiddle that is more important to him that any non-Metis could understand.

The history is in the music. The story of the trip plays out around the search for the killer. And as it turns out, the killer is someone with whom Du Pré has sympathy.

Along the way, you learn the history, especially the unheralded part played by the Metis. You learn about the fight to preserve a ranching way of life that many see as having destroyed the land and its original purpose. And again, you learn about the music.

The Gabriel Du Pré Montana mysteries are a mix of history and mystery. Peter Bowen's Gabriel Du Pré Montana mysteries are among the best books I read.