THE ILLINOIS DETECTIVE AGENCY: THE CASE OF THE MISSING CATTLE by Ethan J. Wolfe; Five Star, 2021; 260 pages, $25.95.

THE ILLINOIS DETECTIVE AGENCY: THE CASE OF THE MISSING CATTLE

In 1884, cattle rustling in Montana is big business, costing ranchers thousands of dollars in losses. Rustling is also a hanging offense, and who best to investigate and stop the rustling than ruthless stock detectives James Duffy and Jack Cavill?

“The Case of theMissing Cattle” is part of the “Illinois Detective Agency” series by Maine author Ethan Wolfe. He has written a dozen westerns, including the “Regulator” series. This is an excellent western mystery with lawmen, outlaws and gun smoke, but also carefully crafted suspense and intrigue, all blended into a fast-paced frontier whodunnit.

Duffy and Cavill are long-time partners, stock detectives for the Illinois Detective Agency. Sent to Montana to aid ranchers in their fight with rustlers, they are perfect for the job — Duffy, a wanna-be lawyer, is cerebral and cautious. Cavill, a bare-knuckles boxer, just wants to catch the rustlers, then either shoot them or hang them. However, this case won’t be easy.

They soon discover the cattle-rustling operation is extensive, spanning several states, revealing meticulous planning and brutal execution by gangs of killers. And the motive for such widespread stock theft isn’t just greed, it’s much more insidious and deadly. Working undercover puts them in the gun-sights of bushwhackers, cross and double-cross, and they can trust nobody.

They also encounter Calamity Jane (but don’t call her that!), a future U.S. president lost on the prairie, a teenager who would later become a legendary outlaw, and a notorious bounty hunter. And they are not the only ones working undercover.

Run-ins with unwashed owlhoots result in piles of hot lead-ventilated saddle bums and some swift hangings, frontier justice-style. The conclusion is a surprise for both the good guys and bad guys, and Wolfe pulls it off nicely with snappy dialogue, historical accuracy and cowboy humor.

THE LOWERING DAYS by Gregory Brown; Harper, 2021; 270 pages, $26.99.

THE LOWERING DAYS 

American philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) once said: “To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.” If that’s true, then it explains a lot about the two families featured in Maine author Gregory Brown’s debut novel.

“The Lowering Days” is a remarkable work of fiction. Rarely does a first novel show such polish and promise for an author, but this one does. Rich with color, emotion, suspense and character, this story reveals just how hurtful words and deeds can be, especially when people are blinded by resentment, jealousy and anger.

Brown cleverly weaves several threads through this complex tale — conflicts between whites and indigenous peoples over tribal lands in the Penobscot River Valley, economic necessity versus the environment, and a bitter feud that engulfs two families. David “Almy” Ames tells this story in first-person narrative, first as a teenager in the 1990s, then later as an adult. Almy is an astute observer.

The Ames and Creel families are distant neighbors along the river, near Penobscot Bay. The fathers, Arnoux Ames and Lyman Creel, drive this powerful story. One man is a deserter from the Vietnam War, the other is a decorated war hero. One is respected and admired in the community, the other is shunned and unfairly tagged with an insulting nickname. Both were in love with the same woman once, but only one would win her heart. A third man loved her, too, but he’s dead, and that’s where the trouble started.

When an arsonist burns down the local paper mill, folks are scared and angry. An act of violence causes boys to punish a lobsterman, apologies are rejected, threats are made, and an alcohol-fueled jealous prank turns deadly, resulting in unbelievable pain, grief and loss for everyone.

And in this case, Hoffer was right.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

Comments are not available on this story.