Book review: ‘Lone Creek’
EDWARDS – “Lone Creek” is the novel Neil McMahon was meant to write.After a series of thrillers set around white collar crimes, forensic science and medical mysteries in San Francisco, McMahon returns to the Montana frontier he’s called home since the age of 22. The result features an eclectic cast of characters, vivid descriptions of the Big Sky State, plenty of horses, rough-and-tumble action and a mystery with a subject that has become quite prevalent in today’s society.
The protagonist of “Lone Creek” is Hugh Davoren, a Stanford graduate who didn’t fit into the California hustle and bustle. After his marriage and career go down the tubes simultaneously, Davoren returns home to the outskirts of Helena to work as handyman.Just when gets comfortable in his surroundings and lot in life, he makes a gruesome discovery buried in the landfill of the Pettyjohn Ranch. His frightful findings touch off a series of events that reach an international scale with grisly repercussions.”Lone Creek” wastes no time in unfolding the action with the first 50 pages featuring a brawl, decaying corpses, skinny dipping and a meth-addicted wannabe commando. It’s quite fun to read and, according to McMahon, just as fun to write.”Lone Creek was a hell of a lot of fun,” McMahon said. “It’s been far and away the most satisfying writing experience I’ve had. It was fun to write the medical thrillers, but that turf was so foreign.
“It was great to finally write about the life I’ve been close to all these years. It had such an organic feel to it.”Before the novel even starts, the reader is indirectly asked to buckle in as McMahon thanks the “thousands of great souls of this place and time, whose lives I robbed to make this story.” When asked to clarify, McMahon said he mixed Montana fact and fiction to create “Lone Creek.” The legends and lore of Helena that McMahon had been regaled with in seedy taverns over the years some how or other wound up in “Lone Creek.” Those mythical Montanans manifest themselves into a manifold cast including Wesley Balcomb, the extraordinarily wealthy ranch owner who manages to keep his nose high in the air even as he struggles in the saddle of his thoroughbred; Laurie Balcomb, his trophy wife who can be a sweet, charming southern belle one minute and a scheming snake the next; Kirk Pettyjohn, the heir of a Montana fortune who can’t shake his crystal meth habit or his delusions of being a guerilla mercenary; and Bill LaTray, the Helena bondsman who can “quiet a rowdy bar with a look.”None of those characters come anywhere close to Madbird, Hugh’s trusted sidekick and a scene stealer that the world of mystery novels hasn’t seen in a long time. Madbird is as multifaceted a character as they come, and a friend who joins the violent cause because he’s anxious for an adventure. He’s a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, a Vietnam veteran, a master electrician, avid gamesman and uses his Indian tracking skills to not only follow Hugh’s pursuers, but to set up his extramarital affairs. He is as hilarious as he is fearsome and loyal. McMahon didn’t have to search far or wide to find the inspiration for Madbird, he said.”Kuskay Sakaye [the basis for Madbird] is as real as it gets,” McMahon said. “I met him in the early 1980s when I was a carpenter and he was an electrician. When I started writing Lone Creek and got far enough in that Hugh was in serious trouble, I realized he needed someone at home in the dangerous, treacherous world he was entering, and Kuskay immediately came to mind.”Although Lone Creek is fiction, Madbird’s character, speech, mannerisms and way of dealing with the world is firmly grounded in Kuskay. He read the manuscript in sections while I was writing and gave it his gruff blessing.”Another of Lone Creek’s strengths is the sweeping scenery McMahon describes. It’s obvious he has much love for the Montana frontier, and he’s able to transport a reader to the winding creeks, backwoods, foothills and fields where mares and geldings canter against the crystal blue sky.
McMahon has a gift for describing his home perhaps as Lewis and Clark saw it decades ago. He manages to even make the vast plains of nothingness interesting, and that’s a rare feat as anyone who’s spent any time in Montana knows.To contrast the picturesque settings are more than a few tussles with blow-by-blow action worthy of Sports Illustrated. Hugh may have majored in journalism at Stanford (McMahon himself was a Stegner fellow at the university), but his brawling skills are worthy of a doctorate. Once again, McMahon is writing from experience here.”When I was first living in Montana I spent three years as an amateur boxer, not a very good one though,” McMahon said. “Some of the boxing material in Lone Creek is semi-autobiographical. Writing those kinds of scenes is two-edged for me. Thrillers, by their nature, require occasional jolts of action; hand-to-hand confrontations, direct and visceral, are a good vehicle. “It also gives Hugh an extra weight; by and large, he’s a nice guy who doesn’t like trouble, but he’s no stranger to roughness and has no hesitations about getting into it. The flip side is that the reality of fighting is very harsh. There may be some satisfaction involved, but it’s mostly bad news, and the consequences can be flat-out grim.”The final brilliant part of “Lone Creek” is a tough one to relay for it involves the book’s central mystery. However, to not touch upon it would be an injustice because it has become a problem that has recently received worldwide attention via an Oscar-nominate film, best-selling memoir and a hit single off of Kanye West’s sophomore effort “Late Registration.”McMahon said he had no knowledge of the other works regarding the subject while he wrote “Lone Creek,” and that he chose this theme because it fit the story’s villains and had also piqued his curiosity. McMahon even spent some time rumbling along the American-Canadian border in a pickup truck to ensure his story was succinct. “I made a trip to the smuggling locale, and spent time driving the dirt roads along the border,” McMahon said. “As near as I could tell, it’s every bit as wide open as described in Lone Creek. I’ve never heard of a real-life scenario like my fictional one, but it sure seems feasible.”And that’s a scary thought.