Monday, June 17, 2013

Even More Big Sky Blues

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Beginning with Big Sky Blues in 1988, Robert Sims Reid wrote five police procedurals set mostly in the fictional town of Rozette, Montana. The three books in the middle of the series featured a detective named Leo Banks and these novels were bookended by two featuring Ray Bartell, who first appeared as a patrolman in Big Sky Blues and then as a detective in Reid's last book, Wild Animals, which was published in 1996. All five are excellent books that sound completely authentic, due in part to the fact that Reid is a very good writer and also to the fact that he worked for many years as a police officer in Missoula, Montana, which often sounds a lot like Rozette.

When introduced in Big Sky Blues, Bartell was party to a tragic incident that followed him the rest of his career. One night while Bartell and his partner were on patrol, and while Bartell's partner was investigating a suspicious situation in an abandoned building, a troubled person got the drop on Bartell. Bartell believed he had convinced the man to give up his gun and surrender, but as the man was about to do so, Bartell's partner emerged from the building, saw the situation from a distance, and shot and killed the man.

The incident has haunted Bartell for years and caused some of his fellow officers to question his judgment. But over the course of twelve years, he has risen to the rank of detective and has proved his worth to the department.

Now, a major slimeball named Merle Puhl, who lives in Rozette, is running for the U.S. Senate from Montana. Another gasbag, who used to be the President of the United States, is coming to Rozette to campaign for Puhl. This means that the Rozette P.D. will be working in conjunction with the Secret Service and other federal agencies to insure the safety of the former president. Bartell is detailed to work with the Feds.

The candidate, and hence the Feds, are particularly worried about an alleged eco-terrorist named Henry Skelton, an ex-con who lives mostly in the woods and simply wants to be left alone. Skelton is suspected of blowing up a helicopter belonging to a logging company that is raping the nearby wilderness. While there's no proof that Skelton committed the crime, the campaign has identified him as a potential threat and Ray Bartell is supposed to check him out. His clear, but unspoken instructions, are to make sure that Skelton is neutralized until the visit of the ex-president is over.

Being a good cop and a decent human being as well, Bartell is troubled by the lack of any proof that Skelton is guilty of blowing of the helicopter or that he constitutes any sort of a threat to the candidate, his campaign, or the former president. He attempts to deal with the situation in a way that ensures the safety and the rights of all of the parties involved, Henry Skelton included. This suggests to some people that Bartell might be a bit too soft to be a "real" cop, which echoes the charge against him from the case twelve years earlier.

In spite of the criticism, Bartell treads carefully between the Feds, his local bosses, the slimy pols and Henry Skelton himself. Inevitably, problems will result and the result is an engaging tale of a good man trying to do the right thing in a world that appears not to be much interested in the right thing.

Robert Sims Reid has created a cast of memorable characters and put them into motion in a setting and a story that has the considerable ring of truth. One can't help but empathize with a number of these characters, even though their interests and objectives don't always coincide. But, of course, that's the way the world often works in real life.

Sadly, after completing this book, Reid apparently did not ever write another. When asked in 2002 whether there might ever be another novel featuring Leo Banks or Ray Bartell, Reid demurred and suggested that the books were a lot of fun to write but that they didn't pay all that well. That was a tragedy on at least two levels: As good as these books are, and as much critical acclaim as they received, Robert Sims Reid is another of those authors who deserved much wider recognition and much greater financial success than he may have enjoyed. It's also a loss for anyone who loves crime fiction, because as much fun as these books might have been to write, they're even more fun--and more rewarding--to read.

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