It’s three, three, three books in one! Or maybe even more.
Sometimes books — and authors — try to do too much at once.
Happily, that’s not the case with “Deep Creek,” the debut of novelist Dana Hand (alias historians William Howarth and Anne Matthews), who deliver a fascinating account that’s equally effective as mystery, Western history and character study.
“Deep Creek” takes us to 1887 Idaho (still a territory), in and around the town of Lewiston, where police judge Joe Vincent and his 10-year-old daughter, out fishing one day, make a grisly discovery: a mutilated body floating in the Snake River.
All too soon, more mutilated bodies turn up, indicating there’s been a hideous massacre of more than 30 Chinese gold miners, who’ve been working the remote title location.
The San Francisco-based Chinese labor exchange they toiled for, the Sam Yup Company, sends a Yale-educated representative, Lee Loi, to Lewiston; he hires Vincent to find the culprits. But they’ll need a tracker — and who shows up to take the job but Grace Sundown, a half-French, half-Nez Perce teacher and mountain guide. She and Joe have a lot of unfinished business — which they must inevitably confront as they make their way to, and beyond, Deep Creek.
The novel has its share of traditional mystery elements and the plot unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion (except in the beginning, when the narrative jumps back and forth between the discovery of the Chinese miners’ bodies and their doomed mining expedition).
Yet the mystery isn’t even the book’s most interesting aspect.
For history buffs, “Deep Creek’s” exploration of deeply rooted racism in the Wild, but evolving, West will provide an eye-opening look at the ways in which both American Indians and Chinese were treated — and mistreated.
And for those who love stories about well-developed characters, “Deep Creek” provides a host of them. Joe himself is a refreshingly offbeat Western hero: stalwart and resourceful, yes, but also thoughtful and willing to ask questions first and shoot later. (Not always the way with the good guys riding the range.)
Lee Loi also proves a bundle of compelling contradictions, but for me the book’s “Most Memorable Character” award goes to Grace Sundown. Not only is she related to real-life Nez Perce horseman Jackson Sundown
(who makes a cameo appearance; see Ken Kesey’s wonderful “Last Round-up” for his adventures at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up with Buffalo Bill and a host of other Western legends), she’s a virtual embodiment of the multiple influences that make up the West — and, by extension, all of the United States. To say nothing of her smarts, daring, sly sense of humor, cussed independence and indomitable sense of self.
She’s definitely one to ride the river with — even a river as treacherous and haunting as the Snake River that flows, like a bloodline, through “Deep Creek.”