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Book Review: Dead Man's Fancy
“A man would have to be a goddamned fool to leave Montana …”
You can’t read Nietzsche every day.
Some days you need to give the deep dark recesses of your brain a break from the prodding and probing and, instead, have some fun tickling the surface with a flight of fancy. Maybe a mystery. And how about having that mystery fold in enough familiar places, interesting characters, controversial wildlife issues, and, most importantly, liberal dollops of fly fishing references, to keep you engaged and interested?
Yes, Sean Stranahan’s back, in Dead Man’s Fancy.
“Sam said you were a man who stepped in shit even if there was only one cow in the pasture.”
Yep. That’s Stranahan. The eastern detective, now Montana fly fishing guide, having survived numerous close calls in Keith McCafferty’s previous titles, The Royal Wulff Murders and The Gray Ghost Murders, finds himself involved in yet another series of deaths, disappearances, and murderous Montana mayhem.
Oh, and western women. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
It all starts with the discovery of a dead local ranch hand, run through with the G4 tine of an elk’s antler, and the apparently related disappearance of a local charismatic female guide (a wink and a nod, here, to one Ms. Vokey) set with a backdrop of the controversial reintroduction of wolves into the west. The mess falls into the lap of Sherriff Martha Ettinger who drags Stranahan, once again, into the middle of things.
It is a common story that men drawn to the wilderness destroy that which makes a place wild, then move to find it elsewhere.
The focus of McCafferty’s tales, I believe, lies in his characters. He brings to the pages a wide variety of western types; gold digging ranch hands, DNR scientists, eco-extremists, colorful backwoods locals, Indian trackers, law enforcement of many stripes, and good-old-boy fishin’ guides. A few are stereotyped - not out of the author’s laziness, but rather to establish the environment of the story – while the majority are developed with more complexity…
…which brings me back to western women.
This is a man’s book; not in a sexist way, but rather in that it takes place in a “man’s world," language and off-color quips as evidence. The women that populate it, that survive in it, take on that challenge and McCafferty’s description of them lauds, more than anything else, the toughness and masculine traits with which they earn the respect of their peers. A byproduct of this gender bend is an uneasy sexual dynamic with often awkward, and amusing, undertones.
Wait. That’s enough analysis. There’s plenty to think deep thoughts about between these covers, but the joy is that you don’t need to. It’s just plain fun. It’s a page-turner that chases Ettinger and Stranahan from Montana’s Madison Valley to British Columbia in search for the missing (or eaten by wolves?) Fly Fishing Venus and has enough turns to tie a proper bimini twist.
You get started and you can’t stop. I read it in a day. The first fifty pages are rife with my highlights and post-it flags, the second fifty's notations are sparse, and the rest of the book is unmarked; not because there weren’t passages of note as the narrative progressed, but because once I got going I didn’t want to slow down to underline them.
Take that, Nietzsche.