I’ve read a few of Gary Paulsen’s books a long time ago and enjoyed them, so I picked this one up from a pile of free books (I get a lot of my books this way). The back-cover blurb says: When the body of a young girl is found in the stables, Al Murphy, sheriff of Cincherville, is determined to solve this awful crime, regardless of who may be hurt by the truth.
Note: spoilers ahead. Also, a trigger warning as this book deals with the subject of murder and rape.
The POV character, Murphy, drives this story, and was the primary reason I continued to read, even though I found the plot itself to be somewhat weak, and the mystery felt contrived. Al Murphy serves as the sheriff of a faltering mining town, and dreams of retiring his badge to marry and settle down somewhere. His relationship with his girlfriend Midge feels very real and deep.
Where this story falls flat for me is in the mystery plot. As Murphy investigates the rape (“done both ways,” which I find somewhat ridiculous) and murder of a young girl named Sarah, an old colonel’s body is discovered in the same stable where Sarah was found. Murphy takes the bodies to Dr. Hensley for investigation. He also takes on a new deputy by the name of Hodges. As the investigation progresses, another man is shot and found dying near an old miner’s shack. When Murphy approaches the man (in chapter 11), he manages to breathe out one last word, “Haaarrrnnnn.” Murphy believes the man is trying to say the name of his killer, and jumps to the additional conclusion that whoever killed this man also killed Sarah and the Colonel. Since the author has given the reader two names already that begin with H, it might be assumed that one of them is the killer.
But no. In the next chapter– already more than halfway through the 16-chapter book– the final H is introduced. Hardesty runs the local bank, and is probably the wealthiest man in the town. It takes Murphy an additional two chapters to come to the conclusion that Hardesty is the culprit.
Proponents of “Chekhov’s Gun” will see the problem: Hardesty is introduced far too late. It was a cheap trick of Gary Paulsen, to not give readers the chance to work out the mystery sooner. How could we, when we didn’t even know the character existed until two chapters before the verdict? Part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to outsmart the detective by solving the mystery first. Instead, Paulsen throws us a few red herrings and minor clues. Even though I was fairly certain where the story was going once Hardesty finally was introduced, because of the way it was all revealed, it didn’t feel satisfying.
The other issue I had was Hardesty’s reason for doing what he did. He killed the Colonel and the other man because they were potential witnesses to his first crime. But when Murphy asks Hardesty why he raped Sarah, Hardesty says, “I can’t tell you, not so your could understand. I saw her in the stable. Saw her hair and the curve of her neck. Saw how she would someday be as a woman…The next thing I knew it was done. You think I would have done it if I had known how to stop it?”
In other words, Hardesty “couldn’t help himself,” and I take issue with that. Not only because it’s a terrible mindset to have; but I also find it unbelievable that a man as successful as Hardesty would have so little self discipline. I could believe that Hardesty is trying to downplay what he did by diverting responsibility, but I can’t believe that he had no choice in doing what he did. I don’t know what was going through Paulsen’s head when he wrote this– but if he was trying to present Hardesty as a fallen but sympathetic character, he failed. If Paulsen wanted to give us an utterly deplorable human being, then sure, he succeeded. But again, it doesn’t feel satisfying. Personally, I enjoy a villain who is more “gray” and complex.
So, the things I would suggest to fix the problems with this book (or any other mystery novel): Introduce the culprit– even if only briefly– in the first act, not right before the third. And give him a better motive than “I couldn’t help myself.”
As interested as I was in Murphy’s character arc, I have very little interest in following him into the next few books in the series. Instead, I’ll just imagine him with a happy ending, living as a rancher in Montana (or anywhere that’s far away from Cincherville) with his wife, Midge, and never encountering another murder victim for the rest of his life.