THE POWER OF THE DOG (1967) by Thomas Savage


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 Phil 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:


***** (4.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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47 Responses to THE POWER OF THE DOG (1967) by Thomas Savage

  1. Colin says:

    Never heard of it – seems like a good ‘un though with an interesting setup, characters and location. I like the idea of the last lie reveal, I think Christianna Brand did a similar thing in one of her books too.

  2. le0pard13 says:

    There’s another great novel with the same title as Winslow’s? Wow. Thanks for the heads up, Sergio.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    This does sound like a creepy psychological thriller, Sergio. Those family stories with doses of psychology and a past-affecting-the-present theme can be excellent. I admit it’s not one I was familiar with before your excellent review. Thanks for the ‘heads-up.’

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    ‘…..though you have to wait until the very last line to discover exactly who was murdered, how and why.”
    I am intrigued. I am arranging to get the book !

  5. I’m not familiar with Thomas Savage or THE POWER OF THE DOG (although I did read the Don Winslow novel of the same name). I’ll have to track down a copy. Nice review!

  6. Wow. This sounds very intriguing, Sergio. But I will definitely have to get in the mood. 🙂 I’ll wait until after the election when I’ll be more in the mood to take this sort of thing on Thanks again for yet another fascinating review. I always know that when I show up here, there’s going to be something unfamiliar yet worth my time – I think it’s just that you’re a terrific reviewer, Sergio. Your taste in books is so different from mine AND YET, here I am, wondering what you’re going to write about next.

  7. Hmmm, I don’t think so. I seem to be trending toward the classic British stuff lately, with exceptions, but not this. I don’t think I’d want to wait ’til the end to find out who, why.

  8. Matt Paust says:

    You’ve made this irresistible, Sergio, dammit! Now I’m off to hunt it down!

  9. tracybham says:

    This sounds like a very good book that might not be pleasant reading. I am usually uncomfortable reading about a cruel character who mistreats people. But I would be willing to give it a try.

  10. neer says:

    You made it sound so intriguing Sergio that I checked immediately at Open Library. Alas! Somebody has beaten me up to it. Lets see when my wait gets over.

  11. Never read anything by the author, Sergio. But the suspense over the murder, leave alone the identity of the murderer, until the last is definitely intriguing. Phil’s “vicious” and “cruel” character comes through your review, so I can imagine how he actually is in the story.

    • Thanks Prashant – the book is primarily a character study, with a strong depiction of life on a large ranch in the 1920s, with he murder element arriving late in the story. It is I think a very compelling, very modern book – I was very impressed.

  12. Ha! I’d never heard of it, and thought it sounded very good but maybe too harsh for me. But then, there’s nothing I like better than a last line revelation, so I am conflicted now…

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    Never mind evil eyes, that’s one evil-looking dog in general! This sounds a little too intense for me…

  14. Pingback: 2016 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt | Tipping My Fedora

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