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Friday, December 4, 2015

The Deputy. Victor Gischler. Tyrus Books (2010)

A very gripping and highly entertaining modern Western that updates and uses a classic Western story framework with tremendous skill and biting black humour. Toby Sawyer is a part-time  deputy police officer in the very small town of Coyote Crossing, Oklahoma who is hoping to be moved to a full time position to help him support his wife and baby. On a night that starts with him being assigned to stand guard over the dead body of a local troublemaker, Toby finds that there is no situation so bad that it cannot very quickly become much worse. A sharply building escalation that finally leads to a classic Western confrontation leaves Toby with nothing to depend upon but himself, something he has strenuously avoided all his life. The action is superb, the reveals are cunningly staged to reveal and conceal at the same time as the superb plot mechanics drive the story forward.
Victor Gischler makes a number of very smart story choices that allow him use a Western  story structure without  breaking it, in this way he can use the tremendous strengths of the framework to deliver the story. The first and most important aspect to get credibly right is isolation, in a classic Western setting this was easy, communication was essential limited and by simply cutting a telegraph wire, isolation was achieved. These days isolation is considerably more difficult to credibly pull off, Victor Gischler has done so with considerable and nicely understated flair. Coyote Crossing is a small town far from any major centre of commerce or communication, far enough away and small enough that it does not have mobile phone coverage. By staging the action at night in a small town that does not give its residents may reasons to be active at night and isolation arises naturally and effectively. Toby is increasingly forced to rely on himself as the already limited resources he has become steadily compromised and the requirement to grasp control rather than just respond become more urgent.
The second problem is the villain of the piece, in a small town in the middle of nowhere what could be a big enough problem to drive the story with enough credible momentum? A very neat solution is revealed, cleverly unexpected and very credible it is serious and dangerous enough to drive the action that is unleashed. This is critical as the cascade of violence that takes place over the course of the night needs a very serious motive to make it more than set dressing.
The whole story rests squarely on Toby Sawyer and he comfortably carries it as he slowly becomes himself across the events of the night. Somewhat trapped in Coyote Crossing and struggling to do his best with the situation, Toby is really uncommitted to his life, the most significant relationship in his life is to his baby son. Toby is living on the hope of better things rather than actively working for them, he is conscious of the increasing need to do so. As events drive him into a corner and he has to actively participate or die Toby finds himself considerably more resilient and determined than he thought. One of the consistent pleasures of the book is the undertow of surprise that Toby experiences as he finds himself rising to desperate challenges rather than drowning in them. Toby is not transformed, he simply asserts himself.
Toby is a likable character, quietly engaging and constantly credible and happily surrounded by a vivid cast of walk-ons and truly memorable villains. The chief villain may not be biggest reveal in the story, they do fulfill final story requirement for a Western. They are a genuine opponent for the lead character, they pose moral and physical problems for the hero, they capture the truly corrosive nature of greed. The Deputy is great fun, a great Western and a equally compelling contemporary crime story, a wonderful mix and a pleasure to read.

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