Not to be confused with Don Winslow’s book of the same name, this powerful study of revenge and repressed emotion is too little-known and unlikely to turn up on anybody’s list of classic crime fiction. But don’t be fooled – there is a chilling murder mystery at its heart, one that needs solving, though you have to wait until the very last line to discover exactly who was murdered, how and why. Set in 1920s Montana, it tells the story of two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, and examines what happens when one of them suddenly and unexpectedly gets married.
I submit this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Patinase blog and Bev’s 2016 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.
“Peter stood wondering what words he would use to tell her he had found his father upstairs, and had just cut him down from where he had hanged himself … “
The brothers are now in their 40s but still share a room, as they always had when their parents ran the ranch, the biggest in the state. Phil excelled at school but George flunked. Phil is able to get on well with the labourers on the ranch, George is always uncomfortable around them. Phil is fiercely intelligent and independent, both at one with the nature around him and well-read. George is dull and unimaginative but is also kind and empathetic while Phil is vicious, cruel and a racist who preys on the weak. It emerges that he pushed their parents out of their own home (they now live in a hotel in Utah). The title is in part derived from a mountain range where his idol, Bronco Henry, said he could see the shape of a running dog, but which most people (like George) don’t have the imagination to see. But then Phil’s harmony is destroyed when George gets married – and, to make this even more disruptive, his new wife, Rose, is the widow of a man who killed himself after being ridiculed by Phil. And Phil – who while being incredibly intelligent is also very repressed about his sexual orientation – is sure that Rose’s young son, Peter, is a ‘sissy’ and so starts a cold-hearted campaign to destroy them both and get his brother back. And right from the start, we know how hard and implacable Phil can be can be, from its stunning (and wince-inducing) opening sentence:
“Phil always did the castrating …”
In her afterword to the recent Vintage Knopf edition, E. Annie Proulx describes this novel as “… a brilliant and tough book” which seems very fair to me. Modelled quite closely on parts of Savage’s own experiences and family history, his feeling for landscape is as strong as his depiction of character, while his handling of all the major set-pieces is nigh on perfect. The entirety of chapter 8 for instance is dedicated to a disastrous social occasion in which Phil successfully sabotages a dinner party at the ranch organised in honour of the Governor and his wife, every little social faux pas realised in horrible, mesmerising detail. But this is also a book with a very deftly laid out plot, with the suspense ratcheted up as Phil drives Rose to drink and draws her son Peter into his orbit as distant memories of his love for Bronco are re-awakened. To reveal more of the story would be to do the book a genuine disservice – and while it is the characters, themes and settings that will haunt you, the final sentence, in which a complex murder mystery is brilliantly revealed, will probably make your head spin, adding just the right kind of emotional flourish to a masterful performance.
I enter this review as part of Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘evil eyes’ category, for the hardback edition of the book: