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The Royal Wulff Murders

by Keith McCafferty

Viking | 2012 | 330 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

I’ll Take My Montana Noir

“Montana represents the untamed, the wild, the natural . . . Between the parks lie mountains that don't have names yet, in ranges you've never heard of. Scattered in their valleys, you'll find small towns full of friendly locals sharing the unexpected . . .” [official Montana state travel website]

Keith McCafferty cranks up the volume in his neck of the woods with a little murder, mystery and mayhem. He imports characters to Montana that are stock figures in pulp fiction: Sexier than Bogie is our protagonist, Sean Stranahan, “Stranny,” who’s an artist dabbling in private eye stuff, but really a fisherman.  Then there’s the impossibly curvaceous singer, Velvet Lafayette, with lips "the color of blood . . . not quite fresh. . . Blood and not quite dried." (Would you trust someone like that?)

Well, her half-truths are the catalyst that gets the action in gear.  Good-Girl sheriff, tough on the outside, mush on the inside, Marian Ettinger, flirts with our hero too. Salty characters like Sam the guide, a possibly harebrained deputy, Walt, Harold Little Feather, the Blackfoot tracker who’s good at his job, sexy to boot, and making eyes at our girl sheriff round out the cast. 

We get a handful of scary Bad Guys with big guns and knives, faulty ethics, and very poor housekeeping skills (Why do single men turn feral? asks the sheriff), shootings and stabbings, and the requisite narrow escapes.

McCafferty goes over and sticks his toe in the dark side of the river, gets tangled in the rushes, yet even when he's trying to be menacing, fear and panic are somehow missing. The overall mood is... fun!  This is the outdoorsman’s Maltese Falcon set in Montana along the Madison River.

The heart of the story is quite simply fishing: men fishing together, meeting and greeting your neighbors while fishing, sometimes fishing with a woman, fishing as a way to get in with your new neighbors. Fishing, the new/old networking tool?

This can pose a problem for city dwellers and make you feel like you’re wading through swampy waters without waders – There is so much fish and tackle terminology that reads like gibberish to the untrained eye of a landlubber.

Remember when you were a little kid and did not understand many of the words you were reading, yet somehow intuited what was going on.  At moments, you realize here that this book was written (unapologetically) by a fisherman for fishermen.  Better look up riffle, caddis flies, small olive streamer fly tied with Arctic fox fur.  Or how about Royal Wulff? But, as I said, it’s all lots of fun.

It’s not hard to stay ahead of the plot even with a red herring or two

thrown in with the catch.  Can Stranny reel in the killer?  Resist femme fatale?  Snare the deputy?  Does it matter?  We’re hanging with the home boys in Montana after all with its wide open spaces where dangers lurk in grizzly bears, elk, people, and corporations trying to despoil the natural habitat to make a profit. 

The  town folk are friendly and it’s a haven for fly fishermen looking for rainbow trout.  The Good Guys do triumph, after sustaining some losses, and we all get to go to an Elk Hunt at the end!

The two women, the dark (Velvet) and light heroines (Marian) both have their charms and the romances are left somewhat open ended – will there be a sequel, I wonder?  A new popular serial character – the artist cum private eye cum fly fisherman?

Keith McCafferty has been a Field & Stream editor for the last 20 years, and currently Outdoor Skills and Survival editor, a resident of Montana, experienced journalist and now debutante novelist. He’s a wonderful stylist, and has created amiable characters (including Montana), a plot that keeps you turning the pages, and a certain intriguing mood and mystique about fishing.

It helps if you like/know fishing! In that case, this book probably has erotic elements for you.  A new genre? Fisherman’s porn?


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