Monday, March 2, 2015

Desert Noir

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There is something haunting about the American Southwest.  It has a landscape that is unrivaled in the world; vast rugged deserts, with mountains, sparse vegetation, and incredible skylines that are famous worldwide.  The landscape is only added to by the people that inhabit the area; the various Native American tribes that live there have been romanticized by history, thus giving their ancestral homelands an aura of mysticism and endurance that does not exactly apply to modern times.  It is this setting in which author CB McKenzie set his first novel, Bad Country.  

Winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for best fiction set in the American Southwest, Bad Country combines several different types of mystery and suspense, weaving two different problems into each other.  Using elements of noir, action, western, and classic mystery genres, McKenzie manages to have two different mysteries going at once.  The mysteries themselves are also unique in style.  One is a run-of-the-mill serial killer, which seems racially fueled; however, the issue becomes much larger than what it appears and much more sinister and desperate.  The other is a brutal murder, which seems to stem from a mix of family secrets, angst, and revenge.  In both issues, McKenzie explores the racial tensions of the American Southwest today; tensions often boil over from disputes between Caucasians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, leading to murder, gangs, and cities divided along racial lines.  All racial groups are captured perfectly and distinctly; these are not caricatures of racial groups, but based off McKenzie's relationships and interactions with different people from his time spent there.  McKenzie also uses racial tension to explore the income gap in the American Southwest, a problem that has plagued the area for decades.  The poverty in the area seems to contribute to both crimes, but contributes to both so differently that it hardly seems like the same issue. McKenzie, despite being in a long line of authors writing about the American Southwest, manages to weave all the social issues into the story without seeming preachy or biased.  There is no guilt complex associated with the setting of the novel; McKenzie does not point fingers in any direction for the plight of the area.  Instead, he expounds that the problems surrounding the American Southwest is EVERYONE's fault. Both crimes are intricately tied to a wide range of characters, varying in sex, race, and age.  This alone makes the book a must-read.

McKenzie adds to the racial mix by having a racially ambiguous protagonist, Rodeo Garnet, who is the other reason to read the novel.  Rodeo is a beautiful mix of the mythos of the American Southwest and of  the actual version of today's tech savvy Native American; he uses the internet to research, but at the same time, has the ability to survive in the rugged landscape.  He is painfully self-aware, yet manages to use that to his advantage.  He essentially is the best type of renegade detective, working outside the system and within his own networks to solve seemingly impossible crimes. His past sparingly haunts him, yet when the full-force of memory hits him, Rodeo uses the emotions to aid to his investigations.

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Rated as one of the top mystery novels of 2014, Bad Country takes a departure from the usual mystery formats concerning Native American characters; McKenzie's mystery does not involve Native American culture, artifacts, or tribal disputes.  Instead, McKenzie focused his novel purely on the human element of crime and did not let the setting of the novel dictate the nature of the mystery or the story in general. There is no message of Native American victimization, no preaching on the attempted survival of the culture, all messages that usually pervade Native American fiction.  However, McKenzie does not shy away from the poverty, despair, and tension of the area.  He embraces it and has it play a large part in both crimes.  The social issues make the novel more dramatic, more complex, and more heartbreaking.  Bad Country will leave you pondering, anxious, and more than satisfied.

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