Let the mystery be 

Deirdre McNamer turns a death in the family to fiction

The cover of Deirdre McNamer’s new novel, Red Rover, her first book in eight years and her fourth overall, presents a sepia-colored photograph of two young boys on their horses. One of the boys, the older of the two, slouches and peers out from behind the rim of a round hat with a half grin. This boy is relaxed, if only the slightest bit impatient; he just might be at that age when posing for a picture is a chore one puts up with only for Mom’s sake. The other boy—younger, hatless, with his shirt buttoned up to the collar and his feet sticking out in the stirrups—sits upright on his horse, the reins clutched in both hands, directing a broad, toothy grin straight to the camera. Behind the two boys, a dirt road runs diagonally, and beyond the road a town’s telephone poles and buildings begin to sprawl.

The younger of the two boys is McNamer’s father and the older is her uncle. Both would grow up to serve in World War II, the older as an FBI agent, the younger as a bomber pilot; both would survive. However, McNamer’s uncle, the FBI agent, would return to Montana from an undercover mission in Argentina with a mysterious, debilitating illness and, soon after his return, be found dead in Missoula, presumably shot to death by his own hand. Though much of McNamer’s Montana readership knows that writing runs in the family (McNamer’s two sisters, husband and brother-in-law all live and write, as she does, in Missoula), many readers may be surprised to learn that Red Rover is also tied, however fictionally, to the McNamer family story.

“I did have an uncle,” McNamer says during a recent phone interview, “much beloved, very charismatic and solid-seeming, who did do undercover work for the FBI and who had apparently committed suicide after returning from a secret mission.”

Through the Freedom of Information Act, McNamer uncovered her uncle’s file and found some startling bits of information, including a memo addressed to Herbert Hoover from the FBI office in Butte claiming an investigation concluded that her uncle’s death was an accidental suicide. Another piece of the puzzle, perhaps more startling, was a glaring discrepancy in the work of the Missoula County coroner at the time. In the official death certificate, the coroner wrote that the body had been found with a gunshot wound through the mouth; later, however, the same coroner told a newspaper reporter that the shot had been through the heart.

“I knew then,” McNamer says, “that there was at least room for many possibilities.”

Setting out to write a book of nonfiction, McNamer soon concluded “that was a mistake.” First there was the inevitable truth that the research went only so far, and that, as many possibilities as there were, the mystery of what really happened to her uncle could never be conclusively solved. Second was McNamer’s own hesitation: “I wasn’t really interested in writing a book where I, as an investigator, would have to play a major role, and I didn’t really see a way around that.” After deciding to put her research toward a work of fiction, the project, McNamer says, “really began to open up.”

The novel, episodic and non-chronological in its structure, covers roughly 80 years and several generations. The story begins in 1927 with two brothers, 13-year-old Aidan and 9-year-old Neil Tierney, traveling together on horseback trying to catch a glimpse of Charles Lindbergh’s flight over Montana. In her characteristically lyrical and precise prose, McNamer writes: “They were a pair. Neil, wiry and gap-toothed and quick. Aidan, darker and solid, well into his growth…Lindbergh’s triumphant tour would carry him, the next day, from the mountains of Glacier Park onto the Montana plains, straight over their heads, before he dipped southward to the mining city, Butte. They would see the plane up close. They might see the man himself, squinting into the blue. He might wave down at them and tip his wings.”

Linked by a central mystery as well as by McNamer’s consistent, echoing prose, the characters in Red Rover seem to have an acute sense of their own stories unfolding over time: “A very small town, out there on the night plain, is its own campfire. And the conversation at winter gatherings are campfires too, each group warming its hands on a single story.”

Soon after its opening, the novel reveals the roles both boys will later play in World War II, the mysterious death of Aidan Tierney and the ripple effect his death will have on the immediate family members, on the generations of family to come, and even on former friends. And a third major character, Aidan’s FBI colleague Roland Taliaferro eventually meets Neil Tierney when both are very old men.

Though the novel grew far beyond its initial biographical seed, McNamer does admit that writing it has helped put her uncle’s story to rest in some ways.

“It wasn’t so much the solving of a mystery,” she says, “as it was the living with a mystery. The truth is shifty. I did appreciate the number of different possibilities and I came a lot closer to working out at least one of them.”

Deirdre McNamer will read from and sign copies of Red Rover at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Aug. 7, at 7 PM.
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