From Tom Franklin's spaghetti-pulp Smonk to Cormac McCarthy's border-noir No Country for Old Men to the reprinting of Elmore Leonard's saddle-burned short fiction dating back to the 1950s (not to mention the recent film remake of his 3:10 to Yuma), it's almost as if the Western is being reborn again as a genre, being infused with new life, fresh ideas and creative energy. Sure, superheroes continue to reign supreme at the box office--well, at least for a certain dark-knight detective--but the iconic image of hombres struggling to survive as ranchers, bounty hunters and card players still resonates in today's popular culture. And it takes a skilled author like Johnny D. Boggs to drive the genre into new literary railheads, as he does in his novel Killstraight.
The book's titular protagonist, Daniel Killstraight, is on his way back to the reservation near Fort Sill. He was educated out East at the Carlisle Industrial School, the lone Comanche among Lakotas, Cheyennes, Kiowas and Pawnees, and when he returns, he's subject to the rather disgusting educational experience of a public hanging. Among those with a noose around the neck is childhood friend Jimmy Comes Last, sentenced to death for the murder of the Benton family. Jimmy's mother, ritually slicing her body after his execution, doesn't believe her son killed anyone; she asks Killstraight to investigate.
Conveniently, Killstraight is made an Indian police officer, or "metal shirt," on the Comanche reservation, a job that mainly consists of burning trash--until he asks a few simple questions and is rewarded with a near-lethal fusillade of bullets.
The idea of a Comanche detective-hero dates all the way back to the pre-World War II pulps. (And let's not forget the post-'60s crime fiction of Tony Hillerman, much of it featuring Navajo protagonists.) But Boggs truly extends and blends the Western and crime genres with Killstraight, mainly due to what feels like a well-researched setting and a complex view of humanity that doesn't bow to politically correct notions. Boggs' Indians drink, and his whites exploit Indians as often as they assist--sometimes simultaneously. In any case, Killstraight is a satisfying read on so many levels.
The first level is the surface of the writing itself. Boggs, a former book reviewer for the Tucson Weekly, knows how to create a dark Western atmosphere, even if his novel lacks any profanity whatsoever. Take, for instance, a daunting moment when Killstraight ponders the bad deeds of Indian prisoners he has been ordered to transport:
Beats His Horse, a silver-haired Penateka, had beaten more than his horse after buying forty-rod whiskey from the Creeks. Near the Fort Sill Sutler's, he had busted one trooper's jaw and carved up two others with the busted whiskey bottle, before the soldier with the ruined jaw drew his revolver and put a .45 slug in the old warrior's left thigh. Finder of Honey Trees, equally drunk, had then ridden up, on his skewbald mare, trying to run over the soldiers, but forgetting to duck. An elm branch left him with a concussion, not to mention the broken right wrist he received when the tree knocked him from the saddle. The heavy iron bracelets must have really hurt, tight as they were against that broken bone, but the old Kotsoteka, once a great puhakut, never showed any discomfort.
On a second level, there's the easy charm of the character Killstraight, a reluctant hero who only ends up sleuthing because of the nature of his circumstances. Boredom leads to curiosity, which leads to nearly getting his head blown off more than a few times by a mysterious assassin who seems to perpetually wait in ambush. (Indeed, if there's a flaw in this book, it's that Killstraight never learns to anticipate gunfire from around every corner.) There's even a mild love interest in the shape of a white schoolteacher; she cheers on the Comanche officer even when he's horseback-racing the local ranchers.
Finally, Killstraight is a family-friendly novel that, despite its bountiful violence and rugged plot, never lapses into Sam Peckinpah territory. The book is adult enough to warrant adult attention, and yet its gore-free appeal makes it ideal for younger readers in their teens. No surprise, then, that Boggs' previous book, last year's Doubtful Canon, earned a 2008 Spur Award for Best Western Juvenile Fiction. The author is very serious about his research without drowning the reader in facts, and he understands--probably from, as his online bio notes, watching old Gunsmoke episodes--how to construct a simple yet compelling narrative. Pick up this novel; set aside a Sunday afternoon; and lose yourself in the debut adventure of Killstraight.