Fresh Meat: Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie

Bad Country by CB McKenzie is a debut mystery set in Arizona featuring a former rodeo cowboy turned private investigator told in an original, colloquial style (available November 4, 2014).

Within the essence of a mystery, there is a definitive effect of setting and local culture on the internal vibrations of the unraveling of the plot. Bad Country is a novel rooted in Arizona that shows the lives of three very different groups of people based on their heritages. Whites, Latinos, and Native Americans all create a cultural environment that allows the mystery in Bad Country to complicate itself. In much the same way, the physical environment of Arizona also finds itself becoming a part of the larger mystery. Together, the culture and the climate make Bad Country a debut novel steeped in questions with tough answers.

Rodeo has taken the oddest of jobs to meet his needs. Whether working as a bounty hunter or as someone serving divorce papers, Rodeo’s unconventional life has led to his involvement in a case that goes far beyond that of equally distributing household assets.

Rodeo returns to his home, El Hoyo, aka The Hole, to find that an unknown man has been killed near his home. Rodeo suspects that the man is one of many undocumented immigrants that often come into Arizona, but he is actually found to be a member of a Southwestern Native American tribe. This is far from the homecoming Rodeo wanted; dealing with the traditional forces of the law has never been his style.

The appearance of the body leads to a larger upheaval in Rodeo’s life as he gets hired on by an elderly Native American woman from his reservation to investigate the death of her grandson. When they first meet, it seems clear that the woman knows all there is to know about Rodeo himself – his Native American mother, his Mexican father, and the complicated circumstances of their marriage – but what is not so clear is her passion behind finding her grandson’s killer. Rodeo knows that she probably can’t afford his services for more than a day, but something compels him to continue. 

Arizona heat and the solitary livelihood of a man straddling the different worlds as they intersect in the desert make up the character play of Bad Country. It becomes a novel that explores the heart of a crime in pieces, a crime that will lead Rodeo to understand hate.

Bad Country immediately strikes the reader with the imagery of the state it depicts. Arizona becomes a character, an accomplice, and a secret keeper in the way that its stark desert environment spreads a layer of dust over everything from the writing style to the mystery itself. This layer of dust spreads to the depicted cultures, veiling their borders until they are as mixed as Rodeo himself.

The narrative style, which avoids using quotation marks and sticks with relatively simple sentences, is deceptive in its intelligence. A list of activities turns into a character-building exercise for Rodeo, a man whose self is so blocked off that the reader needs to dig through layers of reserved tasks and strained dialogue to find the man that the story is centered around. Through that minimalistic narration, we do come to learn about Rodeo’s heritage and past.

This should be Indian Country. By rights it should be. The woman said this as if it explained something in the world, maybe everything to her. But instead it’s mostly Mexicans who want everything and Anglos who know everything. The woman shrugged and shook her head in scarcely controlled anger. My husband was Mexican. And he made me have all those kids but never had any money or talents for them or me either.

Rodeo had spent much of his early life on San Xavier Reservation and was Native-American, Mexican-American and Irish-American, so he understood this common domestic dilemma.

Can I trust you? The woman said this abruptly, as if it had just occurred to her.

Rodeo presented his regular sales pitch to a reluctant client.

Mrs. Rocha, hiring a private investigator is something of a trust issue in general. There’s just no way around that. But you pay me, so I am a professional. And because I am a professional you can trust me to do my work. 

Bad Country maintains this kind of narration throughout the story. It pushes it forward as Rodeo investigates while trying to maintain his sense of self. No matter what happens, the narration never strays from that colloquial voice. It’s one that is so embedded into the area – the usage of terms like “Indian” and “Anglo” – that it’s shocking at first, though it quickly becomes clear that it is a colloquialism that runs within the blood of the characters, just as Rodeo’s need to read the Bible before bed is woven through subtle metaphors.

The harsh landscape seeps into the way the inhabitants speak. What makes this mystery spark and flame so quickly is the way each character seems to be made of flint. Rodeo is clearly a rough character, yet the people he interacts with are just as rough, though often in different ways. The landscape and the cultural tensions are so natural that the characters scrape against one another to create fires against each other.

Oh for chrissake, the sheriff said. Even the birds out here in The Hole are stupid as shit.

Ray Molina killed the recalcitrant vulture with a headshot from ten yards. Rodeo exited his pickup and leaned a hip on the fender.

You can still shoot, Ray.

The lawman acknowledged this compliment with a nod then turned and pointed the revolver at his deputy in the black SUV. He rolled his wrist and the revolver around and then re-holstered his six-shooter as his underling rolled down his car window and stuck his pale brown face into the world.

There’s nothing out there quite like Bad Country. As a mystery, as a setting, and as a view on culture, it’s harsh. Transporting doesn’t begin to cover just how this novel will take you somewhere. In the way it creates an environment of unbelievable harshness, it allows the mystery and the crime to flourish in a way that will satisfy mystery fans, especially those that want to feel enveloped in the world the novel creates.

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John Jacobson is a college student that likes to get little sleep and advocate for LGBTQ/queer social justice.  If he had spare time, it would always be spent reading or watching nostalgic 90’s cartoons.  He’s a coeditor at Spencer Hill Press and has been a part of the publishing community for over five years.  He also writes for Heroes and Heartbreakers.  You can find him there, on Twitter @DreamingReviews, and occasionally on his personal blog.

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