Peterson’s debut sends Kansas Sheriff James “Cactus” Early down some perilous paths.
When he returned from World War II, Cactus Early married schoolteacher Thelma Nelson and settled in as sheriff of Riley County. Bedeviled by the bank-robbing son of a local rancher, he’s further shaken when he’s called to the scene of schoolteacher Judith Smitts’s axe murder. Her husband Bill would be the No. 1 suspect if he hadn’t been out of town on railroad business. An investigation reveals that Judith was far from an ordinary housewife. A Jew deeply involved in Zionism, she’d been raising funds for the new state of Israel while conducting an affair with an officer from Fort Riley. Taking a break from tooling his jeep over countless dirt tracks, Cactus catches a train to Kansas City, where casual racism moves him to complain to President Truman and Judith’s parents introduce him to an Israeli diplomat who describes Judith’s active role in the fight for the nation’s independence. His troubles back home worsen when his pregnant wife suddenly shows signs of mental illness and Bill Smitts disappears, his alibi broken, pursued for theft by railroad detectives. With help from several individualistic sheriffs and a hard-bitten state trooper, Cactus slowly pulls his case together even as his own life slips into chaos.
An evocative, idiosyncratic procedural that pairs a lovingly portrayed landscape from yesteryear with a quiet, tough hero and a stable of appealingly down-to-earth characters.