BookBrowse Reviews Bad Country by CB McKenzie

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Bad Country

A Novel

by CB McKenzie

Bad Country by CB McKenzie X
Bad Country by CB McKenzie
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2014, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2016, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Linda Hitchcock
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Set in the desert Southwest, this award-winning mystery raises a variety of probing questions about socio-economic class, immigration, and more.

If author CB McKenzie's decidedly noir debut novel Bad Country were chocolate, it would be at minimum 85% cacao - intense, richly nuanced and extra bitter with just a trace of sweetness. Protagonist Rodeo Grace Garnet chiefly reserves his tenderness for his old dog as he strives to find solutions to the criminal rompecabezas or puzzlers in this hard-boiled, complex and literary thriller. This former saddle bronc rider has little to show for his seasons on the circuit as a rodeo cowboy except for a championship prize silver belt buckle and residual aches from ground slams off bucking horses. His striking, surgically enhanced former girlfriend Sirena left him broke, heartsick, and as a coup de grace peppered his dog's behind with buckshot.

Rodeo is a complicated man, reclusive, solitary and astute; a clever sleuth and occasional bounty hunter working with marginal success as private investigator and process server. He scrapes by, drives an old truck and lives in his late mother's dilapidated trailer. Life has been a balancing act due to his mixed heritage: an educated Native American mother raised on a reservation and Irish-American ranch hand and rodeo rider father. Bad Country is set in the fictional Los Jarros County south of Tucson, a likely substitute for sparsely populated Santa Cruz County adjacent to Mexico's Sonora State. Rodeo's residence in a barrio the locals call "El Hoyo," the hole, is the antithesis of the well-tended "active adult" communities that proliferate the Southwest. The arid desert is alive at night with rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes and undocumented aliens perilously risking their lives to skirt the nearby official border crossing.

When the body of a young man, a Pascua Yaqui tribal member and aspiring poet, is found near his home, Rodeo is reluctantly drawn into the case by the under-staffed sheriff's department and officially hired by the teen's grandmother who is from his own San Xavier Reservation. The story widens and expands in scope as two plots interconnect and more bodies turn up, each a member of a different Native American tribe, suggesting that a serial killer may be randomly targeting ten major Arizona tribes. There are many twists to this never-dull, fast-paced tale that is guaranteed to keep a reader up late and in suspense.

Bad Country is a stimulating selection for book discussion groups and sure to spark lively conversation. Rodeo is called to assist the sheriff in determining whether a dead body is an illegal immigrant or the victim of a homicide. Rodeo, who is half Tohono O'odham, is sadly accustomed to racial prejudice and the separate identity of reservation life. The prose is spare, and the phrasing careful, with a fine symmetry achieved between character, setting and well-crafted plot. Beyond these basic conversations, this thriller offers a wealth of discussion topics from children's beauty pageants to the history and treatment of Native Americans on and off reservations, immigration policies and reforms, border security, corrupt politicians, career choices, the socio-economic class system in America, inequities in the educational system and animal welfare.

Bad Country was a winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize for best first mystery set in the Southwest. This debut author has written a novel that is bleaker and more pessimistic than any of the writings of the prize's namesake author, Hillerman. He does include the kinds of cultural details that also enrich Hillerman's iconic Leaphorn and Chee mysteries standout. McKenzie is a worthy contender in the realm of literary suspense fiction.

Reviewed by Linda Hitchcock

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in January 2015, and has been updated for the June 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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