Shallow grave 

Fitzpatrick's Montana mysteries don't dig deep

When an author plugs his previous book in the opening eight pages of his latest, I am curious. When he applauds himself through the voice of his protagonist for "a masterful job editing," I am wary. And when he includes a page and a half of endnotes cataloging detective antecedents and the copyright information of songs his character sings, I am frightened at what I have gotten myself into. These bizarre details either belong to meta-fiction, which consciously addresses the devices of fiction, or to narrative calamities with no self-consciousness whatsoever. Author John S. Fitzpatrick's detective tales appear to belong to the latter.

Fitzpatrick is a resident of Helena and lobbyist for some of the state's core industries. His book utilizes his knowledge of Montana, similar to his last offering, Sherlock Holmes: The Montana Chronicles, insofar as the region is crucial to an understanding of the crimes and the psychology that wrought them. The Casebook of Sheriff Pete Benson is a succession of eight unconnected stories set in the fictional mining town of Rodgersburg, Mont.—based vaguely on Anaconda—in the fictional county of Rhyolite, placed between Missoula and Silver Bow counties.

click to enlarge The Casebook of Sheriff Pete Benson - John S. Fitzpatrick - paperback, Riverbend - 232 pages, $12.95
  • The Casebook of Sheriff Pete BensonJohn S. Fitzpatrickpaperback, Riverbend232 pages, $12.95

Pete Benson, once a detective in Seattle, has settled into his role of patrolling the sleepy town, quoting Marcus Aurelius and taking care of his family when he isn't consumed by some tangled, and often silly, investigation. His dispatcher likes to play practical jokes on him, his wife has all the signs of being wifely, a slutty, middle-aged waitress can't help but flirt with him, and at the Apex Bar Sheriff Benson drinks coffee at 3 p.m. everyday and imbibes the local gossip that occasionally assists him during a mildly troubling case. The residents of Rodgersburg are real Montanans, Benson—and, perhaps, Fitzpatrick—believes. They are folksy with their humor, not grammatically plausible and hate men with long hair (i.e. liberals). They are kind and warm and will invite you in for a cup of Joe, but they sometimes turn to crime and become embroiled in outlandish schemes to defraud an insurance company or steal a harp.

"A lot of people think that living in a rural area or small town must be boring—nothing ever seems to happen," Benson says during one investigation. "As a country sheriff in Montana, I can tell you that's just not true."

These tales of deduction and prosecution cover a limited range of misdemeanors, murders and scams. In "The Long Lost Treasure," Benson cracks down on a pair of hoaxers intending to capitalize on the town's lust for historical booty. Its twist is actually quite convincing and it is by far the most engrossing title of the lot. "The Case of the Rubber Gloves" nearly succeeds, through a double-viewpoint of the events, as a bleak psychological analysis of a dissociative disorder, but it shies away from probing too far into the mental deterioration of its antagonist.

Other pieces in the collection, however, indicate an almost thorough disregard for the reader's intelligence. "One Saloon Too Many" is an early indication of the author's prejudice against both Democrats and outsiders, while the main suspect in "A Real Pretty Picture" is a guy who knows about French impressionism in a part of the world where a guy should not know about French impressionism. For someone who is as affluent in Montana history as his reputation claims, Fitzpatrick has molded his characters into extreme caricatures that non-residents might briefly assume live in Montana. And he treats his readers even more idiotically than his homespun Rodgersburgers. From one of the last stories, and the wellspring from which a reader's contempt for an author is born:

"The lack of a body tends to slow the process of determining if a death has taken place," Nick observed factually.

A few of the stories appear to have been carefully plotted, but the majority are uninspired. Surprisingly, the author is quite proficient with the sort of misdirection essential to mystery, but it is wasted on a poorly conceived structure that turns decent enough ideas into unintentional parodies of Western life and law. That lack is compounded by the absolutely puritan nature of the text, which is so innocuously idyllic it makes Nancy Drew plotlines seem like meth-fueled bloodbaths. Even Benson, who throughout the mysteries buries himself in Machiavelli's The Prince and J.F.C. Fuller's The Conduct of War, probably wouldn't be that interested in these stories. It's a book for those who enjoy their mysteries clean, harmless and not very realistic.

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