Montana by Gwen Florio
Montana by Gwen Florio (Permanent Press, 2013) starts by reminding us of the problems faced by those in the military who have been repeatedly deployed into theatres of war. During their time “under fire”, many develop stress-related disorders. When they return to a supposedly safer civilian environment, not everyone makes a swift readjustment. It’s convenient to slap a generic label like PTSD on these problems and to reassure timorous citizens that proper and adequate care is available to all who need it. The difficulty, of course, is that not all those returning admit to these problems or respond constructively to the care offered. But active combatants do not operate in a vacuum. Once you stray away from those formally enrolled in the military, there are multiple roles for civilian support staff and journalists who are embedded in the forces overseas. Then there are the lone wolves who operate as freelance war correspondents. For these individuals, little or no formal monitoring or care is available. The majority are left to sink or swim. So when Lola Wicks is untimely ripped from her rather dangerous assignment with militants in the Afghan field, she exhibits many of the symptoms of PTSD from simple anxiety to hypervigilance. In the subtext to this novel, we’re therefore engaged in answering a simple but powerful question. When civilians return from a landscape torn by war, how do they come home? Where is that quiet place where they can relax, unwind and finally rediscover the innocent peace of mind they had when young?
From this you’ll understand this is not a straightforward murder mystery novel. Equally, it’s not pretentiously setting out to be a literary mystery although it is very well written. Rather it’s what I’ll choose to call a character-driven novel. In this case, we’re looking at the life of Lola Wicks, a foreign correspondent who has lost her way, and the titular US state. I’m not in any sense knowledgeable about America, but I get as far as knowing this state is a paradoxical place. The TARDIS is always described as bigger on the inside. Well Montana is a vast area of mostly empty space with mountains on the inside. I suspect the pressure of geography does something to the psychology of those who choose to live and work there. They are more likely to be loners, stuck out on ranches, cutting down trees or extracting oil or coal from the ground. It’s an unforgiving place to live, but one which can develop a very strong sense of community. So you could see the book as a recruitment interview in which the state tries to decide whether Lola could fit in and Lola devises a contingency plan in case the state does offer her a place to stay.
In the midst of all this there’s a murder to solve. Someone shot her friend at the cabin where she lived near the Blackfeet reservation. To our stressed hero, the local sheriff doesn’t seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box. So the live journalist decides to honour her dead friend’s memory by applying her investigative skills to determining who the killer is. It’s at this point that I mutter darkly about the need to look beyond the superficial and see the real person beneath. As Lola herself recognises, a good journalist never relies on assumptions when it comes to writing a good story. So when you read this book, and you definitely should read it, the key to understanding motives and corresponding actions is to identify what’s really important. To one of the Blackfeet, for example, it may be maintaining cultural and linguistic traditions in a world that’s hostile and judgmental. To a sheriff, it may be a desire to keep people safe in difficult circumstances. With the elections raising the race issue, this includes balancing the interests of both the native Americans and the more recently arrived white folk. This might prompt him to move more slowly than an outsider might expect. And so on. Once you start thinking about the people, their status and roles in the community, it should get easier to see the “big picture”. I was fascinated by the detailed way in which it all fits together with even an interest in art being relevant.
This is one of the times when I can unashamedly admit to not seeing the reveal. I can’t remember ever seeing this particular idea applied to this situation before. It’s most ingenious. So when you put the two halves of the book together, Montana proves to be one of the best murder mysteries I’ve read so far this year. It’s a remarkably assured first novel. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for a second.
For a review of the second, see Dakota.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.