Butcher Pen Road: running wild in the backwoods

A dead body found in a sleepy creek in rural Oklahoma – at first glance, this is a city-slicker fisherman, sneaking some fly-time out of season, who’s slipped on the rocks. But tribal policeman Bill Maytubby and country deputy Hannah Bond aren’t so easily fooled. The fish in dead man’s keep-net are all wrong for his bait. His gear is too new to be credible. The tracks on the trail suggest different footwear worn by someone taller, with a longer stride. And why is the boy who found the body quite so scared?

Fair warning: this review might get a bit gushing. There are a few crime writers who can expertly evoke a sense of place and of genuine people; who can transfer those authentic voices to the printed page. Kris Lackey is one of those authors. It’s no mean feat and it’s punishingly tough to accomplish in minimal prose. James Lee Burke transports his readers to the Deep South and has a wicked ear for cadence and conflict but… let’s face it, JLB uses a thousand words to tie a shoelace.

Similarly, John Sandford’s dialogue simply sparkles but both of his charismatic protagonists tend to wander off piste these days. With the Bond and Maytubby series, Lackey has created characters every bit as witty and engaging as Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers.

But Lackey’s investigators aren’t Hollywood-style superheroes who get shot in every engagement and can call in an air-strike if the going gets tough. You can believe in Hannah Bond and Bill Maytubby: they live in the same world that we do. They’re methodical, competent and experienced officers… who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the people of their community.

We’re with Bill all the way as he nibbles a veggie health snack, kicks off his shoes to better track his suspects, and details a crime scene with meticulous conscience. You can’t help but admire Hannah as she sweats the day away, sweeping the dirt to secure a vital piece of evidence (and then devours dripping red meat for her supper.) And if they have to sidestep a few regulations – and run rings around a rookie state investigator – well, they take their share of punches, too.

The two earlier books in this series sensitively illuminated some delicate societal issues. This time there’s not so much emphasis on the cultural intricacies of the Chickasaw nation but instead the spotlight falls on a profoundly deaf young man. He’s the key witness who has seen more than he understands and can easily express – but he’s no token victim and nor is the author playing the sympathy card. The lad is a fully-fledged personality with all the grubby grey ambiguities of adolescence – and the determined courage to stand up to the murderers who stalk him.

As Bond and Maytubby follow their evidence they encounter bitter rivalry between bad neighbours, a strange set-up at a healthcare centre, and the bizarre sight of a Roman amphitheatre being hewn from limestone by an aggressive born-again. The initial killing, it seems, is more than an isolated incident. These men have secrets and they’re prepared to kill again to protect them…

I should come clean and admit that at times I couldn’t quite see where the disparate threads of this story were heading. The plot gallops along at a cracking pace over a few short days, and you have to run alongside Bill, through the brush and dry river-beds, just to keep up. At times, I was too swept up by the chase to understand what was actually happening. The final two chapters explain it all, but I would’ve appreciated a little bit more of a recap in the middle.

And yes, I appreciate the irony that I’m actually asking for a little bit more exposition when I admire the pared-back simplicity of the author’s style so much. Even so, it would’ve helped me if Bill’s conversations with his nutritionist partner provided a little more illumination on the progress of the plot. (And rutabaga – or ‘swede’ as we call them in the UK – are cattle food in any country!) However, I wouldn’t want to miss any of the affectionate double-entendre between this pair in their mature, loving relationship.

By the time the final page rolled around I was fully caught up with exactly what had happened, and thoroughly delighted with Maytubby’s deft manipulation of the multi-agency debrief. This is a crime series which wears its humanity firmly on its sleeve. There may be moments of outright aggression and blunt force, but the negative effects are kept in check by the likeable characters and their affable good humour. There’s none of the bleak nihilism which so frequently permeates crime fiction set in backwoods America. The result is ultimately uplifting and affirming, and I can’t wait for the next one.

9/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Butcher Pen Road
by Kris Lackey is available at Amazon

———

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Say hello to the complicated contact killer, JJ Stoner

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