Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. In the case of BAD COUNTRY, it’s a frontal view of a pickup truck that’s a bit ragged around the edges, parked in the middle of a dry and unforgiving somewhere. The truck, we learn soon enough, belongs to a rough-edged but principled piece of work named Rodeo Grace Garnet, a protagonist who --- like creator/author CB McKenzie --- you will not soon forget.
McKenzie’s debut work is a wonderfully flawed (see below) masterpiece set in and around a Tucson, Arizona that one will not find highlighted in the Chamber of Commerce guidebooks. Garnet lives off the grid in a remote corner of El Hoyo --- The Hole --- just outside of Tucson in a development that never quite got developed. Garnet has quite a backstory, which McKenzie drops in dribs and drabs throughout the book, completing a rough sketch without distracting from the here and now. Garnet is a former rodeo cowboy who currently keeps body and soul together as a low-rent private investigator.
"Garnet has quite a backstory, which McKenzie drops in dribs and drabs throughout the book, completing a rough sketch without distracting from the here and now."
Two things happen at the beginning of BAD COUNTRY to prod Garnet and his ancient, much-beloved and nameless dog out of their comfort zone. The first is his discovery of a corpse practically at his front door, hard on the heels of a second one within a few miles of the first. The other is a hit-and-run accident that kills a teenager in Tucson. The boy’s grandmother somewhat reluctantly hires Garnet to discover who killed her grandson.
There is a bit of history between Garnet’s family and his new client. Garnet’s ancestral lines are rooted in Tucson’s neighborhood and in the Indian Reservation nearby, both of which play prominent roles in BAD COUNTRY. What Garnet learns is that there has been a series of murders in and around Tucson, seemingly random killings --- including the one in his neighborhood --- that have some similarities that are not immediately obvious. Garnet begins poking around, and soon enough encounters a chillingly cold killer with a connection to the hit-and-run victim. He all too soon discovers that he is working under a looming deadline that will unleash a hailstorm of new murders if he does not meet it. Meanwhile, the question of why the murders are occurring remains unanswered. The answer will lead Garnet back to his own past and put him in even greater danger.
BAD COUNTRY makes demands. The biggest is that there is quite a bit of dialogue --- wonderfully written, colorful dialogue --- that is presented sans benefit of punctuation. It doesn’t really add anything to the story other than to make the reader pay close attention to what is going on, but the tale is so riveting, so beautifully and effectively told, that anyone picking up the book is going to do that anyway. And there is a subplot that almost seems to have been tacked on, and unnecessarily so, for no other apparent reason than to grind a political ax. It’s an unfortunate distraction that does not derail this dark modern western, this hefty chunk of border noir that will give you the sense of grains of sand trapped within the binding. You absolutely do not want to miss BAD COUNTRY, or McKenzie’s next book.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 26, 2014