Blood Trail, or An End to Digression
Posted by: Keir Graff
I know I promised to digress just a little bit more-though I also promised that I’d promise to stop digressing-but I just can’t take it anymore. I have to stop digressing now.
I had a good reason for digressing, though: I was stalling for time. This is supposed to be a book reviewer’s journal, but I’ve been so busy over the past week that I haven’t had a moment (or the energy, when I have had a moment) to open a book. An inauspicious start, certainly.
But yesterday, trumpets sounded, the heavens opened, and a light streamed down-and I found myself with two hours to sit and read. (Actually, I was stuck in my eye surgeon’s waiting room, but close enough.) So enough throat-clearing. While I have plenty of valuable digressive material left-explaining my role at Booklist Online, sharing my reading tastes, explaining how I got here, revising my mission statement-it’s time to get down to what my friend Frank calls “brass turkeys.”
Right now I’m reading a book called Blood Trail, by Gary J. Cook. I’d never heard of Cook before, though I was aware of his publisher, Dennis McMillan. I met McMillan briefly at Bouchercon last fall in Chicago, when he moderated a panel that included James Crumley, Jim Nisbet, and a couple of other hard-boiled types. McMillan made an amazing entrance, waiting for everyone else to be seated and then strolling down the aisle, placing his fedora on Crumley’s head, and holding forth for a few minutes as if he were the main attraction. He was wearing an amazing, 1940s-style suit, and if memory serves, a scarf. Though McMillan is the definition of a small, indie publisher, he has some really interesting books, and an interesting approach, pushing limited-edition hardcovers that he believes will become collectors’ items.
(Nisbet’s recent book, The Syracuse Codex, was one of my boss Bill Ott’s faves last year, by the way-though you’ll need a subscription to Booklist Online to read the review. And McMillan author Kent Harrington made the cut for The Year’s Best Crime Novels 2005.)
But enough about McMillan. Bill gave me Blood Trail because Cook has a connection to Missoula, Montana, my hometown. So far, the novel is set mostly in Japan, but you can’t have everything.
How do I like it so far? I feel mixed. The opening is stunning, clean compelling prose that describes a sniper’s crawl through the jungle to back up an exchange of P.O.W. remains in Laos, in 1973. Then we get a bit about the protagonist, now a sheriff’s deputy in the Bitterroot Valley (south of Missoula) in 1987. (Strangely, I’m friends with a mystery writer who is publishing a book set in 1987 Montana, too-but more on that later.) Tails and some other deputies hunt and kill a bear that has the potential to cause problems for the locals. Tails is a man clearly haunted by his past, and the hunt brings back some difficult memories. So far, so good.
Then Tails heads to Japan to work for a fake import/export company whose real business is to “take care of problems that governments for one reason or another don’t want to or can’t handle.” The Japanese stuff can be vivid and compelling, too, and Cook is a writer who puts his strong scenes of violence in a lot of context-both in the characters’ psyches and in the world at large.
But he also feels like a writer who could have used a stronger editorial hand. His prose is clean and his dialogue is interesting, but there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue, too. At times it feels as if the characters are circling back around to things they’ve already said. Readers who are reading for the action will develop nervous tics and say “enough already!”
But just when I think I’m getting a little restless, I get sucked right back in. Cook is an unusual talent, but he’s definitely talented. I’ll read more tonight.