Almost heaven 

Montana mystery peels back the façade

"Calvin Teague walked out of Red Plain at four thirty one August afternoon carrying an old Boy Scout backpack to which he had strapped a flannel sleeping bag." So begins Matt Pavelich's moody second novel, The Other Shoe, a brooding mystery as informed by darkly funny folk noir as it is by the habits of genuine Montanans.

The Other Shoe deals with the death of Teague, who has somehow lost his eponymous shoe. After abandoning his vehicle, he is picked up by a chatty woman and driven to her home for a shower and his sudden murder. From there, the plot kicks in as investigators try to determine the specifics of Teague's demise. But instead of a typical potboiler, Pavelich hones in on the emotionally fragile quartet of incredibly authentic Montanans who fuel his story: Karen Brusett, the woman who picks up the stranger; her kind-hearted husband, Henry Brusett (the main suspect); D.A. Hoot Meyers; and public defender Giselle Meany. All have some deeply personal connection to the case.

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  • The Other ShoeMatt Pavelichpaperback, Counterpoint320 pages, $16.95

The Other Shoe is by no means a whodunnit. It's a why-they-dunnit. Tackling the biography of each individual in resplendent detail, Pavelich uncovers a Venn diagram of harrowing cause and effect, showing that evil and guilt should always be footnoted. Henry Brusett's culpability is not really the crux here, any more than alcoholism is the theme of The Sun Also Rises. The real mystery is the one lurking in the past and in the façade of the everyday.

Pavelich is dextrous with the convergence of the touching and the horrifying: The ambivalent marriage and weirdly affecting co-habitation of Henry and Karen, Hoot Meyers's and Henry's Poe-esque acid trip and Giselle Meany's struggle with her profession are immaculately molded into all-too-human proportions. One of the great strengths of The Other Shoe is its peeling away of small-town secrets to reveal the frail hopes of the people who reside there.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through, The Other Shoe inexplicably grinds to a halt. Pavelich suddenly converts to structures of genre fiction, transforming his insanely insightful book into a soulless prison drama as Henry awaits his verdict and sinks into self-loathing. The author starts to focus far too much attention on Henry's rambling cellmate, Leonard, and even when he does return to the others, it's not with the same ferocious intimacy that made the first two hundred or so pages so compelling. Somewhere between the involving love story of Karen and Henry and the climactic courtroom scenes, Pavelich appears to have bored himself with his own novel, plodding into the last chapters like a man on a strict deadline.

When Pavelich's novel is good, it is an irregularly profound study of devotion and senseless murder, with a pitch-perfect ear for locals and local cadence. The Other Shoe is what happens when a startlingly first-rate writer lets a conventional plot interfere with an extraordinary story. The book starts with an understated premise, expands that premise with staggering psychological depth and culminates with a nostalgic echo of the beautiful crime saga it promised to become and did not become.

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