• U.S.

Lost Horizons: A good mystery from a series on the badlands

2 minute read
Walter Kirn

The setting for An Unfortunate Prairie Occurrence, the third and best of Jamie Harrison’s laconic Montana mystery novels, is the small town of Blue Deer, just miles from Yellowstone National Park but far, far away from anything resembling mainstream, middle-class America. Though it’s not a high-crime zone by any measure, Blue Deer is a vortex of dysfunction, its geographic isolation breeding a sense of year-round cabin fever. Fretful, jumpy and deeply divided between new-money urban refugees playing cowboy and no-money long-time residents living off resentment and odd jobs, Blue Deer is also the “New West” in microcosm.

Sheriff Jules Clement is the man in charge of keeping the town’s cooped-up energies contained. A local boy who’s seen the city lights during a stint in New York as a social worker, he’d rather be standing in a mountain trout stream than making his daily rounds, which are mostly devoted to tire slashings, acts of birdbath vandalism and hunting accidents. As an example of what Harrison calls “that final anomaly, a liberal officer of the law,” Clement would just as soon not crack most cases, aware that the bulk of them boil down to ignorance, not malevolence. But when he trips over a human skeleton rotting on an island in the river, he’s drawn into action.

Harrison (daughter of novelist Jim Harrison) is something of an anomaly herself: a mystery writer who’s not only literate and handy with a plot but possessed of a voice and a vision as well. Her off-the-cuff eloquence and easy sarcasm remind one of a small-town courthouse wit, loitering on the steps with a cigarette, flipping digs at starchy passersby. Her supporting characters and assorted suspects, from a snippety lady historian to a blowsy, big-boned social worker, aren’t merely fictional head shots. They have body. Stuck way out on the windy plains together, their passions, flaws and eccentricities jumbled up like hats and gloves in an overflowing lost-and-found box, the people of Blue Deer are more than just a cast. They’re a community.

–By Walter Kirn

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com