Written by J. Todd Scott – It’s hard to believe this well-crafted crime thriller is a debut novel. The author’s experience as a DEA agent lends authority to his prose, and his meticulous rendering of the Big Bend country south and east of El Paso, Texas, and its fictional town, Murfee, takes you to that dusty back-of-beyond. Outlaw country.
The two key voices in this multiple point-of-view novel are those of 17-year-old Caleb Ross, son of Big Bend County’s despotic sheriff, who’s called “the Judge,” and new deputy Chris Cherry, once a local high school football star. Caleb’s mother disappeared 13 months before the novel begins, and he’s convinced his father killed her, which colors their every interaction. Cherry lost any hope of a football career when he blew out a knee and still isn’t sure where his new future lies.
Caleb and Cherry are lost souls, floating under the brilliant West Texas stars, staying out of the deadly orbit of the sheriff, and trying to find out what kind of men they will be. Scott does not give them an easy path, and you’ll hold your breath as they are repeatedly tested.
These two narrators are joined by another deputy, Duane Dupree—a living, violence-addicted, coked-up example of why it’s best to steer clear of the Judge’s snares. You also hear from the Judge himself. One way or another, he knows everyone’s secrets.
Not only are these male characters convincingly portrayed, but Scott does a good job with his women too. You get part of the story from the perspectives of Caleb’s friend America, his teacher Anne, and Cherry’s live-in girlfriend Melissa. Their problems are believable and compelling enough for the characters to take the actions they do.
You have to root for Deputy Cherry, who has a bad habit of actually trying to investigate stuff. Early on, he responds to a call from a rancher who’s found a dessicated corpse and, while the Judge’s other deputies would gladly assume the deceased was “just another beaner” who died in the desert, Cherry isn’t sure. Because of the extent of the sheriff’s corruption as well as his confidence in his absolute authority, he reacts to Cherry’s probes like a horse responds to flies. They warrant a twitch, maybe, but no more.
The chili really starts bubbling when a gunshot couple is found in a burning SUV, far from anything.
Scott keeps his plot threads alive and moving at a clip. I never lost interest for a moment and even forgive a little deus ex Máximo at the end. (Not a typo. Trust me.) Readers who enjoyed The Cartel, which appears on many lists of the best thrillers of last year, will appreciate this sharp view from the northern side of the border.
A longer version of this review appeared recently here on CrimeFictionLover.com.