In 1994, Peter Bowen published Coyote Wind, the first in a series of so-called “Montana Mysteries” starring the Métis (French, Indian, and more) brand inspector, sometime lawman, whiskey drinker, top-notch fiddler, and politically incorrect warrior for justice Gabriel Du Pré. They now number twelve* in print, with more written and coming soon. I confess that although I subscribe to Raymond Chandler’s famous dictum that there are no genres, only good writing and bad writing, I am not fond of the term “Montana Mysteries.” I feel it can discourage readers who think they don’t like mysteries. I have come to accept Bowen’s own insistent description of them as potboilers, though not for any lack of quality. For most of us who labor in that shrinking literary market once known as “the mid-list,” it is necessary for us to keep the pot boiling, or else. By Bowen’s standard we all write potboilers.
If Bowen is insistent on that term, I am adamant on another: literature. I think that the Du Pré novels are some of the best that have ever come out of Montana, and unlike some of the more acclaimed, so-called literary productions of the state, always a delight to read. Bowen’s mythical town of Toussaint, located somewhere in the dry plains of eastern Montana north of the Missouri Breaks, far from the tourists of Yellowstone and the Yuppies of Bozeman, has become an inhabited place full of western characters as real and vivid, not to mention quirky, as any that inhabit the real New West.
Not that we are talking Yoknapatawphah County here. At the risk of sacrilege, Bowen’s Montana is a hell of a lot more fun than Faulkner’s Mississippi. It is simultaneously as real and earthy and dry as the sage brush plains and the Badlands and just a touch magical, infused with the not-quite-vanished spirits of older civilization than ours, personified by Du Pré’s maddening old advisor Benetsee, the ageless medicine man who seems utterly independent of time and space.
Despite which, the Du Pré novels are not “Magic Realism” either. They simply treat Benetsee’s powers as real, like Du Pré’s ancient police cruiser, or his rich alcoholic friend Bart Fascelli’s enormous earth-moving machine.
The novels balance a light touch and pitch-perfect dialogue with a grasp of the serious issues that face the West today and, since mysteries must deal with life and death, moments of loss and violence and terror. Various novels deal with everything from the poisoning of Indian lands to serial killers to the decline of ranch life; there is even one about valuable fossils.
Bowen’s take on contemporary issues does not, thank God, fit neatly into today’s ridiculous binary political boxes. I suspect if I picked him up and shook him by the scruff of the neck he would describe himself as some sort of left-libertarian, accepting neither politically correct platitudes nor ideological selfishness. He is on the side of the little guy and remembers history’s losers; he is on the side of freedom, and the old ways, and knows that the land eventually always prevails. Somewhere in his oeuvre – he’d kill me for using that word – is a statement I often quote, though I don’t have it marked in any book: “Poor folks act like folks, rich folks act like government.”
Which might make him sound solemn – which is the very last thing that could ever be said of Bowen. His vast cast of recurring characters alone could give the lie to that. I must control my impulse to list and describe each. They include Du Pré’s companion Madelaine Placquemines, and his grandchildren, whose names themselves are a delight: Alcide, Pallas, Lourdes, Marisa & Berne, Hervé, Nepthele, Marie & Barbara, Armand, Gabriel, and Collette. There is ancient, filthy, endlessly wise Benetsee, with his taste for fizzy pink screw-top wine, Coyote the Trickster personified, whose abilities include everything from ancient languages to, seemingly, appearing as various animals. There is Benetsee’s college-educated apprentice Pelon. There is the ancient outlaw cowboy Booger Tom, Bart Fascelli’s foreman, who smokes and chews and is given to statements like “I’d rather be robbin’ trains. Thing about it is the world don’t pay much attention to what I’d like.” (Good cowboy talk, something I cherish after thirty years in New Mexico, is another constant delight in these novels; I’ve heard working cowboys say, as Du Pré does to Tom, “Let’s do something, even if it’s wrong”).
More modern characters include Du Pré’s neighbor and best friend Bart, recovering alcoholic and heir to vast mysterious Chicago money. Though his family history is darkly tangled with Du Pré’s, he often puts his money and his charming but ruthless lawyer Foote to work as Du Pré needs them. Then there are the out-of-town law enforcement characters drawn like flies to Montana’s travails – Harvey “Weasel Fat” Wallace, Blackfoot Indian and utterly urban and fastidious FBI agent, who hates the countryside and dirt; his protégée “Ripper” a mad young east coast aristocrat related to some of the old ranch families, once seen dropping into a bust in a cult compound dressed as the Mad Hatter; and Samantha Pidgeon, another FBI agent, a beautiful Californian who’s an expert on serial killers. For comic relief there is Toussaint’s parish priest Father Van Den Heuvel, a genuine holy man who is so clumsy he often injures himself slamming his head in car doors.
Despite the humor, the west of Bowen and Du Pré can be a dark place. One of my three personal favorites, Notches, is a serial killer novel as frightening as any of its genre, as Du Pré slowly gathers evidence that reveals that two long-time murderers, aware of each other, have been cutting a cross-shaped pattern through Montana and the west for years. This is, I think, the most cinematic novel Bowen has yet written – how come no enterprising producer has discovered it? The recurring scene of an eighteen-wheeler truck rolling in from the distance so its driver, an ex-bank robber, can meet with Du Pré, is cross-cut with Du Pré’s wanderings and investigations until the killers finally receive their just desserts. After the action, the survivors gather in the bar in Toussaint where a Métis fiddle band led by the ancient Perè Godin plays a Métis war song for the victors:
“Salteux!” screamed Perè Godin.
The Métis roared.
Perè Godin broke into riffs of reedy chords and notes not of the European scales.
Dr Pré fiddled. He played notes form his blood. Smoke. Buffalo on the shortgrass prairie.
The Salteux had run the Sioux out of the Great Lakes country and the Cheyennes out of Wisconsin.
Du Pré fiddled between his two worlds of the blood.
(Du Pré on the Métis: “We are all over, you know, some of us act real white, live whiteside. Some of us have been doing that generations, don’t even know we are Métis anymore. Some of us live on the reservations, are more Indian. Lots of us around. Whites call us Indians. Indians call us white. Catch shit, everywhere. Been like that for three hundred years. More. Some say we were here before Columbus.”)
Perhaps his most realistic portrait of the New West is my personal favorite of his books, 1996’s Wolf, No Wolf. This remarkable novel winds its way between the two simplistic positions that still polarize rural westerners: that wolves are incarnate evil, or that they are some sort of holy Native American spirit guide. The novel (and the novelist) are so sly that one noted environmentalist, a friends of both of ours, refused to read it because he thought it was a “reactionary” anti-wolf tract, until his wife and I suggested he read it all the way to the last line. Bowen is scrupulously fair to both wolves and embattled ranchers, even sympathetic, if ruthless, when they take matters into their own hands. He is less than sympathetic to those with no vital interest in the matter. It’s worth quoting another female FBI agent, a hard-bitten westerner, called in to investigate the killing of some environmentalists to show this delicate balancing act ;
“Now, these people who shot the kids they get murder two,” said Agent Banning, “ ‘cause I don’t think they were thinking about it till they saw the stupid little bastards cutting the fences and shooting the cattle, and you know we got to stop this because otherwise it’s going to be a sport, you know, shoot anything walks funny, eats tofu, or carries around a flag with baby seals on it. You know, I know, small-town West is going to die, out wonderful government is going to kill it off. They like doing that to small cultures, did it to the Indians and now it’s us, but it’s how history moves, and beef is a bad word now and we live in a democracy and we got a very small voice. Oh, by the way, when they release those damn wolves up there they’ll last about two hours and I know that and I don’t care. I don’t want to hear it, or about it. That’s Fish and Wildlife crap, doofuses. They pulled me off some drug murders, Jackson Hole, to send me up here. God, that place is unbelievable. Good place for a nuclear accident, you ask me. Well, we had this when it was good.”
Bowen’s most unusual novel has to be Thunder Horse. It includes Japanese corporations, paleontologists, a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, uranium, Indian activists, money, and, of course, murder. Before the crimes are resolved, Pelon uses Benetsee’s sweat lodge to give Du Pré a vision that will help him see through the tangle of motives and dark history that surround it, all the way back to what might be the arrival of the very first inhabitants of the continent, the tribe that they will come to call the Horned Star People. As Pelon throws more water on the steaming stones, Du Pré sees the scene through his closed eyes:
He saw a dark red plains with green lakes and mountains of white ice on each side. Dark red rivers ran between the lakes. Mists rose. It rained, dark red rain.
Mammoths screamed by the water, trunks upraised.
The water steamed mist. The land was green with thick high grass and trees stippled the plains. Huge flowers.
Waterfalls thundered off the mountains of ice.
Rain. Cold, clean-smelling rain.
Du Pré saw the huge canoe down below. Thirty paddlers and one man wearing the wings of a bird and a beaked mask standing in front.
The bird-man in the prow held something out from his neck, between his thumb and forefinger, looking down his arm toward the sun low and red above the mountains of ice.
The paddlers headed for a smallish flat-topped butte, red and yellow and brown in the strange misty light.
They pulled around it and then headed for shore.
There were people painted red dancing on the shore.
Du Pré floated on to the land and he walked through the red-painted dancers.
Something white gleamed on the rock. A tooth, a huge skull half out of the stone, giant bones with ends protruding.
* * * * *
This is a mere sampling from twelve wonderful novels; every one contains passages as good as this. And there are two or three more in the pipeline, already written and ready to go. (One of them features characters, and dogs, from Kazakhstan, where I’ve been privileged to spend some time. Bowen simply picked my brain and then, using the advice that Hemingway gave when he was still capable of giving good advice, imagined them so intensely that I find it hard to believe that he has not been there himself, or known these fierce horsemen, both like and unlike our own native tribesmen.) It says something about the sad state of modern publishing that they are not already published, or that Bowen is not a household name. On the other hand, he’d probably hate every minute of fame.
Still, do yourself, not to mention Peter Bowen, a favor and read not one but all of these superior Montana novels about not just the New West but the real West, gritty and mythic, funny, haunted, and haunting. Without a doubt, you will enjoy yourself, and you might even learn some things along the way.
Magdalena, New Mexico
*Nails, the 13th book in the series has been published.