I love a book where the environment becomes as key to the story as any living character. I love the difficulties it presents for furthering the plot, the way it forces the action to jump through certain hoops. Thunderstorms and slick roads. Vast, empty spaces where help is hours away, even if one can get a cell signal. In his debut novel, Bill Vaughn captures such Montana-specific challenges in an exciting, fast-paced romp of a crime story.
The setting of Making Bones is the Missouri Breaks region of central Montana. I grew up in Big Sky Country and have now spent most of my adult life in the state as well, but the Breaks, as we refer to them, is an area I know little about. Vaughn does, though, and he paints a rough, unforgiving image of the place, even as he reveals its otherworldly beauty. Vaughn's descriptions struck me similarly to how the Southwest informs Ed Abbey's storytelling in The Monkey Wrench Gang, with his cast of supporting characters just barely less quirky.
Making Bones opens with the murders (by arrow to the forehead) of two men who are digging up dinosaur bones to cash in on the black market trade. The story then jumps forward four years, where Izzy Sain is our focus. She is a cattleman's daughter who grew up to be a professional photographer. As an adult she'd moved away to travel the world, but upon the death of her parents she returns to their Montana ranch. Rather than sell, she decides to try and make it her home again.
During a rafting trip with her friends and boyfriend on the Missouri ("The Misery," as locals call it), the group hikes into a remote side passage Izzy calls "Maniac Coulee." (As an explorer of the Breaks since a pre-teen, she's labeled all the unnamed areas on the map after rock bands.) There, Izzy uncovers the skull of one of the unfortunates from the book's opening, forcing a renewed investigation into what had essentially been a missing persons case.
Because of her intimate knowledge of the area, the Bureau of Land Management—her boyfriend is a ranger for the agency—hires Izzy as a special deputy to help in the investigation. Their work faces a number of conflicts, not the least of which is navigating the feuds and generations-old animosities of rural Montana life. Izzy and her boyfriend must overcome the bureaucracy of overlapping law enforcement jurisdiction. They must question wealthy Hollywood types filming a reality television series in the area.
Meanwhile, a few more bodies pile up. There are some gruesome deaths, but there is also more than the usual amount of humor typically found in a crime story. One clue even leads to a "Creation Museum" in Alberta, Canada, where people are depicted living shoulder-to-shoulder with dinosaurs.
Vaughn writes fantastic characters, and the situations in which they find themselves make me wonder if they might be based on actual events, because they are almost too far-fetched to be imagined. He also does a fine job avoiding the tropes so common in more typical books of the genre.
Making Bones marks the second release from Vaughn inside of a year, but the two books couldn't be more different. Yale University Press released his work of natural history, Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, in May of last year, and it recently received honors as part of the 2015 Montana Book Award. Making Bones, however, was released solely by Vaughn last November and is available only as an ebook via Amazon's Kindle app.
That devilish detail shouldn't sway interested readers from seeking this book out. Most people I know, even the diehard hard-copy crowd (which I consider myself a member of) still keep an ebook reader handy. I have three different reading apps on my phone and usually a book going in each one of them. As an exercise in self-publishing, Making Bones is among the best I've seen—as clean as anything released from one of the big publishing houses and a lean, tight read. The latter shouldn't be a surprise, as Vaughn has been storytelling a long time.
Making Bones deserves a wider readership than I suspect it will find as a Kindle-only release. I'm hoping Vaughn plans a series of Izzy Sain adventures, because she is a strong character operating in an interesting environment. Her literary presence brings much needed energy to a tiring genre, and Izzy's first adventure renewed my interest in crime fiction.