Anyone who can remember flying into Montana for the first time will appreciate the desolate feeling of landing at a one-runway airport where fly rods are carry-ons and stuffed grizzlies outnumber the baggage carousels. The experience is starker still for Lola Wicks, the hard-bitten foreign correspondent protagonist at the center of “Montana,” Gwen Florio’s engaging new crime novel.
When we first meet Wicks, she’s on assignment in Afghanistan, burrowed into a sleeping bag on the floor of a Taliban hideout in the Hindu Kush. A satellite phone call from her editor summons her back to Balitmore, where she discovers her shrinking newspaper can no longer afford its international bureaus. She’ll be reassigned to a suburban beat – an occupational death sentence for a veteran correspondent like Wicks. She’ll have to trade her flip-phone for a smartphone, and learn how to tweet. The old days, she’s told, are over.
But first, a vacation is in order. Wicks flies out to Montana to visit her former colleague and longtime friend, Mary Alice Carr. She plans to spend a long weekend with Mary Alice and then hop a plane back to Afghanistan, her editor be damned. But when Wicks finds Mary Alice shot dead on the hillside above her cabin, she resolves to uncover the killer, a reporting assignment that soon takes on deadly dimensions.
What unfolds in the fictional town of Magpie, Mont., on the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation, is a suspenseful mystery in which every new character is a suspect. Who killed Mary Alice? Was it Frank, the brain-damaged veteran with impeccable aim? Was it Johnny Running Wolf, the slick gubernatorial candidate with skeletons in his closet? Was it Verle Duncan, the art-collecting cowboy who breeds prize Arabian horses?
After two more bodies show up, Wicks realizes that not everyone in Magpie is who they say they are, and not everything is as it seems. As she pieces together the story Mary Alice was reporting before she was murdered, Wicks reaffirms her old axiom of self-preservation: “I don’t trust people,” she says. “That’s how you make mistakes.”
Florio reveals Wicks’ character as much by what she doesn’t do as by what she does. She doesn’t own a purse. She doesn’t cry, ride horses or eat pie. “What kind of person doesn’t eat pie?” asks one exasperated cowboy. “What do you do, Lola Wicks?”
Her reply is characteristically cocksure: “I get the story,” she says. “That’s what I do.”
And get the story she does, with gutsy self-confidence that occasionally puts her in harm’s way. Some of Wicks’ flaws are undoubtedly the collateral damage of her lonely, unattached vocation as a war correspondent. We empathize as Wicks struggles to readjust to America after her time in war-torn Afghanistan. She mistakes a jackhammer for machine gun fire. She rearranges hotel rooms to feel safer. She sleeps with her boots on. She keeps her money in her bra.
Still, it’s easy to crave a little warmth from Wicks, who is at turns abrasive, cynical, larcenous and conniving. But Montana sets to work on Wicks, and the novel is as much about solving a murder as it is about Wicks’ transformation at the hands of a new environment, full of unfamiliar vocabulary, like “riding fence,” and customs, like never asking a cowboy how much land he owns.
On the surface, two places could hardly be less alike than Montana and Afghanistan. But as Wicks roams from ranch to reservation and into Canada to unearth clues, she finds similarities – both have their share of drugs, corruption and guns. Fluent as she is in reporting from Afghanistan, Wicks has to learn a new set of rules among the cowboys and Indians of Montana, where people are known by the “outfit” they drive, and their cabins are known by the people who built them. If Wicks is going to uncover the truth behind Mary Alice’s murder, she has a lot to learn, and fast.
The writing in Florio’s debut novel is clearly enriched by her own foreign correspondence (in Afghanistan and other countries) and her six years covering Montana for the Missoulian. Descriptions of Kabul ring with authenticity – that “crowded villa whose outlandish expense (Wicks) shared with a shifting, quarreling cast of other foreign correspondents.” Florio’s depictions of the issues and scenes of rural Montana, where “bullet holes ventilated the speed-limit signs,” are no less convincing.
Thanks to Florio’s reporter’s eye, “Montana” is filled with telling detail, embellished with descriptive flourishes. Some of those flourishes are campy: The sheriff’s nose is so big it’s “deserving of its own listing in the U.S. Geological Survey.” But others are pitch-perfect, as when a politician eats a cinnamon roll with a deliberate fork, “icing piling up against it like drifts on a snow-plow blade.”
The inconspicuously titled “Montana” is an entertaining, well-paced page-turner with mounting tension and steady suspense. Florio plants ideas in a reader’s mind just as deftly as Wicks slips other people’s belongings into her pocket. And just when we think Wicks has the murder solved, the book gallops to a thrilling, fiery finish.
From start to finish, “Montana” is decadent crime fiction with local and international flavor. And as with all good stories, when Wicks flies out of a small-town Montana airport at the story’s end, she’s not the same person she was when she arrived. Montana isn’t the same either.
Jacob Baynham is a freelance journalist based in Polson. His website is jacobbaynham.com.