In solid 'Montana' a reporter trades Kabul for Big Sky mystery
By Gwen Florio
Permanent Press. 208 pp. $28
Reviewed by Edward G. Pettit
Lola Wicks is a hard-bitten journalist, used to covering war-torn hot spots.
Now, her Baltimore newspaper is shutting down its foreign news bureaus as a cost-cutting measure, so Wicks has been called home. After months embedded with Afghan militants, Wicks is told she must get accustomed to covering domestic issues and property-tax increases.
Needless to say, her adjustment will not be easy. Wicks decides to take some vacation time - including a visit with her former colleague Mary Alice in the small Montana town of Magpie - as a ploy to find her way back to Kabul on her own dime. However, when she arrives in Big Sky Country, Wicks finds that Mary Alice has been murdered.
Gwen Florio's debut mystery is set in the modern West of ranchers and Native American reservations, where Wicks must find the answers not only to her friend's murder, but also to her own restlessness.
Florio understands the journalistic world of her protagonist, having worked for more than 30 years as a reporter in stints with The Inquirer and other newspapers as well as the Associated Press. Her experience shows in her portrayal of Wicks, a journalist totally invested in getting the story. It's a heroic take that doesn't skimp on the heroine's weaknesses.
Wicks soon knocks heads with a local sheriff, gets romantically entangled with a charming rancher, and begins unwinding the clues left by her reporter friend. Mary Alice was writing pieces for the local paper on a candidate for governor, Johnny Running Wolf, a slick talker from the Blackfoot tribe whose campaign finances have raised serious questions. Wicks doesn't have faith in the sheriff to solve a murder that looks more like an assassination.
The novel also plays around the edges of the western genre. The Montana setting isn't just pretty scenery. Like all good westerns, the setting encompasses its characters, reflecting their emotions and providing their motivations.
But Wicks isn't mesmerized by life on the range. She's not the unseasoned Easterner befuddled by American life out west. She has too much experience with warlords and soldiers for that (when we first meet Wicks, she is sleeping in the camp of Afghan rebels in the Hindu Kush). Rather, Wicks is the world traveler, the journalist so accustomed to danger that she cannot adjust to the measured canter of a horseback lifestyle. This western landscape might seem similar to the hills of Afghanistan, but the winds blow differently in Montana and Wicks must get used to the weather.
No matter the winds, tribal conflict is a still a constant reminder for the journalist. After navigating the murky world of Afghanistan, Wicks now must do the same on the Native American reservations of Montana, where poverty and crime live alongside the wealthy rancher. Wicks' geography of memory serves her well here and she begins traversing the area, with a brief jaunt to Canada following a lead. Wicks is part seasoned foreign correspondent and part cultural anthropologist as she solves this mystery.
Complicating her footing in this new world, Wicks also seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms after so long in the field and must use the investigation of her friend's death to keep control. The political intrigue and local crime scene help her see straight, keep her focused. And Wicks has an endearing proclivity for stealing small objects from those around her, another quirk that perhaps gives her a feeling of power over those trying to control her, whether it's her newspaper boss or the charming rancher. Wicks needs to find ways to keep steady if she's going to find the story.
The writing at the start of the novel seems a bit busy, but as the novel progresses, Florio's prose becomes crisp and precise, reflecting her character's gradual focus. Wicks needs to find the small details in the broad stretches of Montana, a place so big that it's easy to hide something out in the open.
Florio's Montana is an impressive debut mystery with a solid plot as strong as its landscape.
Edward Pettit, an Edgar Allan Poe expert known as the "Philly Poe Guy," is a National Book Critics Circle member and writes the "Bibliothecary" blog, bibliothecary.squarespace.com