THE CATTLE DRIVE

Talk slow and shoot low is how Quirk deals with folks — the first if he likes them, the second if he doesn’t. And in this latest western by mid-Maine author Ethan Wolfe, Quirk does plenty of both.

“The Cattle Drive” is the latest excellent story in Wolfe’s string of popular westerns put out by Maine publisher Five Star. Readers can count on well-crafted stories with convincing characters, authentic atmosphere, snappy (and often funny) one-liners and terrific plot twists.

It is 1880, and Quirk is alone on the Wyoming prairie driving a small herd of cattle and horses to market. When 12-year-old twins Michael and Michelle stumble out of the darkness seeking help, Quirk finds himself in the gunsights of a ruthless gang of kidnappers and rustlers. The twins are spoiled rich kids traveling from Chicago to San Francisco, escorted by four hired detectives to protect them en route.

The detectives, however, intend to kidnap the kids, collect a huge ransom from their wealthy Chicago aunt and then kill them. But now Quirk is in the way and the gang leader decides he’ll have to kill a lot of people to get that money.

While the city kids annoyingly correct Quirk’s grammar and manners, he teaches them how to ride, drive a chuckwagon, herd cattle and horses, and cook bacon, beans and biscuits, each wary of the other, constantly watching their back-trail for the trouble they know is coming. Quirk is like their parent now and he’s not happy about it.

Quirk is coldblooded and handy with a gun, but still needs the special skills of Red Scar — an Arapaho war chief and friend who wears eyeglasses to shoot straight — when the final showdown comes. Talk slow and shoot low is good advice.

SOMETHING ABOUT THE HOUSE

When Bucksport author Jane Harvey Meade wrote her first mystery, “The Summer of the Disco King,” in 2011, she got it right — a concise, compact, convincing mystery. This is her second mystery novel; however, it is twice as long, but not twice as good.

“Something About the House” is a plodding story, too long by at least a hundred pages, about a small Maine town in 1963 self-destructing over contentious school-board issues, fueled by a complex and lethal real-estate scam, aided by police incompetence and corruption.

Meade frames this mystery around a young couple, Abby and Dan Morgan, newcomers to Townsend, Maine; he to be the elementary school principal, she to be a schoolteacher. He is an abusive jerk, she is a heartthrob sweetheart. The house they rent turns out to be the focus of a criminal conspiracy tied to a school district consolidation and new construction, but they are clueless to the illegal scheme.

Meade paints a very ugly picture of the town and its residents. Provincial and protective, they do not like change and treat outsiders with suspicion and disdain. The school is in chaos, administrators are inept and cowardly, parents are hostile and the Morgans are targets for harassment and confrontation.

The first murder does not occur until page 300 and the victim is a surprise, but nothing after that is unexpected. The bad actors are identified early on, so there is no question of who is guilty — just how long it will take to expose them. The conclusion is easily predictable.

This is more a small-town soap opera than a true mystery, with townspeople bickering, gossiping and fighting among themselves. Be hopeful your town isn’t like this.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.


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