Power to the people 

Paddy Lee’s new novel pays tribute to Butte

When it comes to stories about Montana, Butte is one of the more popular muses for authors. With its colorful, gritty history of copper kings, mining fires, labor protests and all that accompanies those things—environmental destruction, brothels, heroes and villains—there’s no need to amp up the drama. It’s already there.

Patrick “Paddy” Lee, who was born and raised in the Dublin Gulch neighborhood of Butte, gets it. But the self-published author, who now lives in Kalispell, doesn’t leave all the action up to history. He’s inspired by fiction—especially James Welch and Debra Magpie Earling—and crime novels like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. His own mystery novels—three of which take place in Butte—use historical events as a backdrop to stories of murder and intrigue. Fire Season takes place in the 1990s but weaves a mystery around Butte’s 1972 Uptown fires. Canyon Secret is a murder mystery inspired by the building of the Hungry Horse Dam in the 1950s.

Lee’s latest, Power Switch, is probably his best crafted (and edited) yet. It’s based on the controversial actions of the Montana Power Company when it sold all its assets to become a fiber-optic cable venture called Touch America. Touch America tanked and investors—mainly Butte residents and company employees—lost jobs and lifetime savings, while Goldman Sachs made off with $20 million for its poor advice.

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In Power Switch, Lee takes that piece of recent history and imagines a murder. The story opens up with one of the company’s board members gone missing and an angry town full of suspects. Once the FBI get involved and a hitman shows up, the tale travels from Butte to Las Vegas to Phoenix and back.

Lee’s interest in storytelling comes from listening to his Irish elders tell the old Butte tales of the 1920s and ’30s. “Friends of my dad’s and my mom’s would tell stories and I’d sit there and absorb it as much as I could,” Lee says. “It was a very Irish-Catholic upbringing, but there was a great humor there.”

Lee uses real Butte names for characters, often based on his friends and acquaintances. “People will read it and say, ‘I know that family!’” he says. “They really don’t—the character is fiction. But they feel like they do. It’s fun for me to do and I think it’s fun for friends who read the book and see their names in there.” (Full disclosure: One character, Rick Fredrickson, is based on my dad, whose Swedish family worked the mines).

Lee also dedicates ink to the storied buildings of Butte and nearby Anaconda. At the beginning of several chapters, he introduces places like the Finlen Hotel and the Washoe Theatre with a little history of the place before leading the characters through the lobby of each building and back into the action of the story. “I think I did 23 different business in Butte that way with accurate information,” Lee says. “It’s fun, but it also sets the scene up.”

This isn’t all about fun. Lee’s interest in telling this story about the Montana Power Company is personal. He knew many people who lost retirement and kids’ college funds to the company’s unraveling. His sister was one of the Montana Power Company employees who lost everything. “My sister had $125,000 in her 401K,” Lee says. “She not only lost her job, she lost all the money but about $1,000. And she was just one person.”

She also suffered a stroke just before the loss, leaving her unable to work. She’s a character in Lee’s story—one of many based on real people.

“I was able to interview quite a few people who had suffered the loss,” he says. “I wanted the reader to know what had happened over time. Montana Power was so solid for 90 years. And within a year and a half it was over. That prompted me. I looked into it and researched it and started writing.”

The murder-mystery part of the story, though it’s fiction, captures real feelings of the time. Characters read actual snippets from the Denver Post about the controversy and they voice opinions that Lee gleaned from real investors.

And the murder? Could such a crime have happened? “Sure,” Lee says. “The murder could have happened. There was a lot of money involved. Billions.”

Lee won’t talk much about anyone he interviewed from the company but he does say that the thing he really wanted to hear, he never did. “I do think Montana Power felt [the sale] was the best thing for Butte and Montana at the time,” Lee says. “But the one thing I didn’t hear was that they felt bad about what happened. And all of them retired really well when the whole thing was over.”

Lee’s finesse with turning real stories into a fictional mystery is impressive. He’s sensitive to the issue. Like a true Butte Irishman, his heart is with the people.

“There’s this perseverance with the people of Butte,” he says. “A lot has been thrown at them—for generations. And this was a big, big blow when they lost the company. But all these small businesses are growing now, and that’s a tribute to the spirit of the people. They just keep coming back.”

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