In the 1940s and ’50s, Montana writer A.B. Guthrie Jr. (1901-1991), was more than just a regional figure. His 1947 novel, “The Big Sky,” earned him popular and critical acclaim; his next, “The Way West,” won a Pulitzer Prize; and he wrote the screenplay for “Shane,” one of the first “adult Westerns” that Hollywood and the TV networks became so enamored of in the ’50s and ’60s. Soon, however, the magic touch deserted Guthrie (no more bestsellers or blockbuster films). But he kept writing just the same, and late in life produced five mysteries, set in Montana and featuring Sheriff Chick Charleston and his young sidekick, Jason Beard, who narrates.
Bison Books, a division of University of Nebraska Press, has been returning these Western mysteries to print, and for anyone who doesn’t know Guthrie’s work, “Playing Catch-Up” is a fine place to start.
In the opening scene, Jason interviews the madam of the town “sporting house,” one of whose “girls” has been found murdered. Both the chore and the setting make Jason uncomfortable, though not because of prudishness. His discomfort has more to do with being forced to confront the seamy side of the male sex drive at a time when he is looking for love. A little later, Chick, his mentor, explains why nobody should be shocked when good women go bad: “Poverty’s a stinking thing. It mixes up values. It doesn’t team up with purity. What’s a little whoring . . . when the belly’s empty?” Soon another local young woman is raped and killed — this one no prostitute but a young singer of such promise that the community had been raising money to send her off to a conservatory for training.
Chick and Jason’s efforts to prevent any more killings are complicated by the arrival of Gewald, a boorish and arrogant state investigator. He tends to bully witnesses, redo perfectly good police work by Chick and Jason and generally make a nuisance of himself. Guthrie’s point: A local lawman who knows the people and conditions around him is more apt to succeed than an overweening outsider. In the end, though, it’s Sheriff Chick’s analytical ability — along with some timely athleticism from Jason — that leads to a solution.
You won’t find pulse-pounding sensationalism in these mysteries. But they aren’t cozies, either. The violence perpetrated against the dead women is ugly enough to give Jason second thoughts about his choice of law enforcement as a career. Guthrie’s strengths include well-sketched characters, a sure sense of place and milieu, and a tale that hangs together well. In short, it’s entertainment of a high order that’s good to see back in print.
Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.
By A.B. Guthrie Jr.
Bison. 183 pp. Paperback, $16.95