by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips has to be giving his editors fits. He begins his
career with THE ICE HARVEST, an absolutely brilliant, enthralling
novel that is one long swerve from first sentence to last. It was
nominated for three different awards --- the Hammett, Edgar and
Anthony --- and should have won at least four of them. Phillips
followed this first effort with the sequel, THE WALKAWAY. Set a
couple of decades after THE ICE HARVEST, THE WALKAWAY is almost
incomprehensible without close familiarity to what has gone before,
practically forcing the reader to read (and, in at least one case,
reread) THE ICE HARVEST. Now we are presented with Phillips's third
novel, which is a --- western.

Ah, but what a western it is! This is not the West of your daddy's
Zane Gray, but the West of your uncle's George Gilman or your big
brother's Joe Lansdale. This is the West where violence, passion
and rough justice occur quickly and without prior warning --- and
often without consequence. The voice of this fine, engrossing tale
is William Ogden, a farmer who, as it turns out, does not want to
do his job any longer, leaving his wife and farm to the care of a
hired hand while he pursues the dual occupations of bartending and
photography in the town of Cottonwood.

The town, and Ogden, is forever changed by the arrival of Marc and
Maggie Leval from Chicago. Marc has grand plans for running a
railroad through Cottonwood and making it a center of the cattle
industry. He sees something in Ogden and takes him under his wing.
Ogden and Maggie, meanwhile, feel an unspoken mutual attraction at
first sight, one that is given voice when Marc leaves town for a
two-week business trip. Ogden's passions, and the mysterious
disappearance of a Kansas City businessman, dramatically coalesce
around the Benders, a rural Dutch family whose greatest and darkest
secret is revealed with a violent suddenness. The results of the
revelations regarding the Benders spark calamity, indirectly
sending Ogden across the country only to return some fifteen years
later to find that much has changed in Cottonwood, though what is
of utmost importance to him has stayed very much the same.

Though primarily a western, COTTONWOOD has a fine mystery subplot
as well and should be pleasing to aficionados of both genres. Given
Cottonwood's geographical proximity (other than for a brief foray
into San Francisco) to Phillips's other novels, I am wondering if
Phillips is, perhaps, laying the foundation for a chronology of the
area told out of sequence and painted on a dark, ominous and
occasionally comic canvas. His next novel may shed some light on
this, or not; the only certainty is that it will be worth reading

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011

by Scott Phillips

  • Publication Date: February 3, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345461002
  • ISBN-13: 9780345461001