- St. Martin’s Minotaur, 224 pp.
Beating a Dead Horse in a Tired Series
I’ll begin by saying that I enjoyed immensely the first seven or eight novels in Peter Bowen’s unique Gabriel DuPre detective series. The characters are original, the settings are on the northern high plains, mainly in Montana country that I love to disappear into, and the plot twists are curious and often surprising to say the least.
The chief character, Gabriel DuPre, along with his love Madelaine, and various children and grandchildren are Metis, a combination of French and Cree that harkens back centuries ago when the fur trading voyagers from France explored Canada’s remote northwest country by canoe. The Metis still live in good numbers on Reserves situated in the bush land of the boreal forest, most notably in north-central Alberta within a 100-mile radius of the dreary truck-stop settlement of High Level.
The initial offerings in the series are so full of energy, humor and a joy of life that it is easy to overlook Bowen’s landscape inaccuracies and the stilted dialogue of the Metis characters that bears little resemblance to anything I’ve ever heard these people speak during many conversations with them on my way to and from both the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
So, I hadn’t read a DuPre book in a few years and was eager to take on Stewball, the thirteenth book in the sequence that hit fourteen four days after this release when Ash Child was published April 5, 2005. And that is part of these books’ problem. Bowen, by his own admission, rarely takes more than ten days to write a book, producing anywhere from 5,000-10,000 words per day. He once said that “My books would benefit by my writing a bit more slowly.” Whatever can be said about Bowen as an author, it’s certainly not that he isn’t a prolific author. The fifteenth book in the series, Nails, is due out next February.
Bowen has paid his way laboring as, among other things, a cowboy, hunting and fishing guide, and folk singer. In addition to the DuPre novels, he has written four books in The Yellowstone Kelly Series, books that are at once quirky, entertaining and informative. He has also written a number of essays on the state of the West.
Bowen spends a fair amount of time hanging out in my home town of Livingston, and writers being the gossiping, nosey bunch that we are, much of all our lives is public knowledge. I know from talking with others that Peter’s publisher takes great advantage of his financial desperation and shamefully offers him what amounts to pocket change for one of the house’s most successful series. This is not unique with St. Martin’s. They treat all of their mid-list writers this way, at least the ones I’ve spoken with in town. This puts Bowen in a tough spot. He’d like to take more time crafting and polishing these books, but he needs money to live, to eat, to buy gas and parts for his pickup.
This dilemma is clearly evident in Stewball, a book of some promise that is ultimately inconsistent, incomplete and shallowly developed, quite unlike earlier offerings that include Coyote Wind, Specimen Song and The Long Son. The story line involves Annie Pauline whose list of husbands and ex-husbands and future husbands is staggering. When she shows up in DuPre’s hometown of Toussaint, he isn’t stunned when she tells him that her current amore, a roughneck called Badger, has disappeared. His extended absence has Pauline worried, so DuPre says that he’ll look into the situation. The first thing he discovers is Badger’s body in a remote part of the Montana wilderness, a bullet hole in the base of Badger’s skull. DuPre thinks that an old friend of his, Harvey Wallace, might be interested in the case, especially in light of the fact that Wallace is gainfully employed by the FBI, and the chances of Badger being mixed up with the sort of felons that draw the attention of this august agency are quite high.
The trail leads straight, perhaps too straight for the sake of an intriguing narrative, to the little-known underworld of illegal brush races involving a nefarious bunch of wandering horsemen with thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars wagered on each race. Forced to go undercover as one of these horsemen, DuPre obtains his own horse and jockey so that he can infiltrate this arcane world of gambling, neo-nazis and crazed World War II fighter plane owners.
All of this has the makings of a wildly chaotic and fascinating story, but none of these threads are developed to anything approaching satisfying fruition and the conclusion to the book is abrupt and implausible.
As for landscape inaccuracies, one that comes immediately to mind is when Bowen refers to the Little Missouri as being only a few feet wide as it flows through the breaks and badlands of the western Dakotas. This is anything but the actual case as the river is as wide if not wider than the Yellowstone as it flows through the Paradise Valley down to Big Timber, a flow that few would be able to wing a hardball across.
And the following is an example of what is supposed to be Metis dialect when Pauline speaks to DuPre over drinks in the Toussaint saloon.
“Badger, he loves me,” said Pauline. “Now, I don’t need crap, you, I need help, Badger he is in trouble maybe, and me, I want you, find him”
This form of manufactured adult baby talk gets real old after thirty or forty pages.
The DuPre series was a great one when it was young and fresh. These days it has grown tired, predictable and a bit sad. I read Ash Child and another fairly-recent release, The Tumbler to see if this lassitude is only to be found in Stewball. It wasn’t. Both of these titles are more of the same.
I fervently hope that St. Martin’s discovers some sense of vestigial conscience and pays Bowen the front money that he deserves. Perhaps then he can take the time to invent new characters and a new series and have the luxury of time to do both them and his talent justice.