Chinese gold miners are massacred in the Wild West, and the pursuit of their killers proves arduous.
Writing under a joint pseudonym, nonfiction authors Will Howarth and Anne Matthews base their first novel on “actual events” (per their epigraph). The miners’ bodies, horribly mutilated, are carried down the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho Territory, in June 1887. Joe Vincent, the 56-year-old county judge, is asked to investigate, a tough assignment because feeling against Chinese immigrants is running strong. But Joe is a decent guy, and the case assumes new urgency when Lee Loi offers him $1,500 to pursue it. The young, Westernized Chinese man is an emissary of the Sam Yup, the powerful San Francisco company that had bankrolled the miners’ expedition. Joe and Lee venture upriver with mysterious, exotic tracker Grace Sundown, the child of a French father and a Nimipu (Nez Perce) mother. They quickly identify the killers: seven white horse rustlers living in a cabin near the mining operation, led by a criminal psychopath named Blue Evans. The versatile Joe goes undercover to gather evidence and barely escapes with his life. This much is straightforward, but the story has more eddies and cross-currents than the Snake. What is the connection between the Sam Yup and John Vollmer, the county’s biggest landowner? Between Vollmer and Evans? What intrigue is Joe’s estranged wife Libby up to, and what has transpired between Joe and Grace? There are exciting moments for the odd trio of investigators as they elude Evans and the angry spirits of several dozen dead miners, but then the narrative sags disastrously with an account of the 1877 war against the Nez Perce, in which Joe participated. Two-thirds of the way through, we’re still getting his back story. The authors’ clipped prose works well for the action passages, much less so for the complex, see-sawing relationship between Joe and Grace.
The makings of a fine novel, obscured by poor pacing and plotting.