A marshal, a minister, and a group of drifters confront a powerful rancher and an ambitious businessman over a woman’s murder in a 19th-century California town.
In this debut novel, Burch draws on classic Western tropes to build a complex narrative about the fight between right and wrong. When a woman’s body is found in a lake near the town of Emerald, marshal Mason and minister Emmett set out to solve her murder, and their fight for justice brings them up against ruthless rancher Moss and developer Traeger, who maintain control over the town and many of its residents. When Trace, Jade, and Crystal—a white man and two African-American women, all accustomed to fighting for themselves and living on the road—arrive in Emerald, they bring their weaponry skills and complicated sense of ethics to the conflict as well. The many characters’ histories—Emmett’s career in a Wild West show, Traeger’s rebellion against his father, etc.—are gradually revealed, providing explanations for the plot’s many complexities, and everything comes together in a traditional shootout on the streets of Emerald. The writing suffers from lack of editing, however, including misused punctuation, incorrect verb tenses, and awkward prose: “It was a subtle and unconscious thing, but not unnoticeable, that Mason addressed Billy first and directed his question to the foreman as well.” While the primary and secondary characters are far more diverse than in many traditional Westerns, they are often reduced to stereotypes (as in one character’s “hot Mexican temper”), and Jade and Crystal remain “exotic” beauties until their histories and personalities are developed in the book’s second half. The book still succeeds in developing a strong sense of place that evokes Bonanza and John Wayne movies.
A traditional Western that embraces the clear division between right and wrong, the role of the hero, and the power of redemption, though the resulting narrative needs a bit more polish.