“An Unfortunate Prairie Occurrence” by Jamie Harrison (Hyperion, $22.95)
Questions about old bones and a series of increasingly violent rapes occupy the forefront of Jamie Harrison’s third mystery, but a lot of the pleasure in this book comes from the richly layered background of history, character and daily life in her fictional town of Blue Deer, Mont.
Sheriff Jules Clement and Blue Deer have been the stars in Harrison’s earlier two mysteries, as has the fabric of life in the county described as just north of Yellowstone National Park. But the discovery of the skeletal remains in this book becomes an exploration of what it means when the untangling of old secrets may rebound on people you are related to - people you have loved and respected all your life. And in the meantime, real life goes on, whether that involves something as slow and certain as the death of the county judge’s wife or as happenstance as a camper top flying off a truck and down the street in the wind.
The dilemma of the bones - the lower half of an adult male skeleton, discovered by a camper conscientiously digging a latrine hole - becomes quickly obvious. They are on land owned by a distant cousin that Jules considers more of an uncle, who rather too abruptly notes that he leased out the land during most of the years that the bones may date back to. Meanwhile, the women of his uncle’s generation, most of them occupied in launching a county historical museum, gossip mightily but clam up whenever anyone asks them a pertinent question. It’s clear there are secrets, but are they merely embarrassing or outright criminal - and do they even relate to this set of bones?
Jules’ insistence on follow-up on the bones doesn’t endear him to much of anyone; even the dying judge’s wife whispers, “Let it go.” In addition, the escalating attacks on women in his county are a far more pressing problem, although he has no connections there even to investigate. Then there’s the convict who wants out of prison long enough to show where he buried the bones of the woman he has denied killing for the past 10 years, which means a twoday trek on horseback into the mountains.
There are also his two new deputies, including an intriguing young woman named Caroline Fair; his ongoing but all-but-extinguished current relationship; an upcoming 50th anniversary party for his uncle and his wife, and the repeated requests by the women in the historical society to shoot off the locks on the ancient trunks they have in storage.
It may be overload, or close, for Sheriff Clement, but for the reader it’s a banquet of events and relationships. In the end, as in real life, some of the events are just events and not part of the grand scheme or much of anything else. But, as in real life as well, in the end some of the events bring people together in most surprising combinations.
This is certainly Harrison’s best work to date, intricate and down-to-earth. Sheriff Clement’s character takes on more subtlety, even while retaining his sardonic view on all that passes for law and disorder in his domain.