Buffalo Jump Blues
A Sean Stranahan Mystery #5
Viking, June 2016
From the publisher: In the wake of Fourth of July fireworks in Montana’s Madison Valley, Deputy Sheriff Harold Little Feather and Hyalite County Sheriff Martha Ettinger investigate a horrific scene at the Palisades cliffs, where a herd of bison [a/k/a buffalo] have fallen to their deaths. Are they victims of blind panic caused by the pyrotechnics, or a ritualistic hunting practice dating back thousands of years? The person who would know is beyond asking, an Indian man found dead among the bison, his leg pierced by an arrow. Farther up the valley, fly fisherman, painter and sometime private detective Sean Stranahan has been hired by the beautiful Ida Evening Star – – a Chippewa Cree woman who moonlights as a mermaid at the Trout Tails Bar & Grill – to find her old flame, John Running Boy. The cases seem unrelated, until Sean’s search leads him right to the brink of the buffalo jump.
This is the fifth entry in the series, and to call it eclectic would be an understatement. Both the fishing and wildlife aspects of it, which predominate in the early sections, are entirely foreign to this reader, whose usual preference is for character-driven novels. But the header for Chapter 8, “A Mermaid, an Arrowhead, and True Love,” captures the elements of most of the rest of the book. The aforementioned Ida is the first of these, the arrowhead a piece of evidence in the search for the murderer of the Indian Man, and true love is – well, as Sean says: “True love knows not logic nor lust, but the synchronized bearing of hearts.”
The bison was the “icon of the West” that only a century ago had stood at the brink of extinction. When Harold comes upon the first body, he puts the dying animal out of its misery. He muses, “The irony of what he had done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years, was not lost on him.” But he had done what he had to do, and cannot second-guess himself. Shanahan is a terrific protagonist, of whom Martha says “You’re what I call a Montana Renaissance man. You have about five different jobs and still you have to stick a hose down a gas tank to siphon up enough fuel to get to the store.” (He guides during the trout season, writes for fishing magazines and paints in the winter (or when he gets a commission). He says of himself “I’m a better artist than I am a detective. Or fishing guide.” But he is selling himself short, as he demonstrates during the ensuing investigation, assisting Martha in the search for the man or men behind the events. The geography of Montana is vividly presented. The writing is terrific and filled with humor, e.g., “Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.” The beauty of Montana is vivid, and that and the wonderful writing have pointed me to the fourth novel in the series which I had somehow missed, Crazy Mountain Kiss, next up for this reader.
Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2016.