Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Death at Dark Water by John D. Nesbitt (Western)

Traditional Westerns are great, but every once in a while a nontraditional one is a nice respite from the sameness of many novels in the genre. (For example, I could never again read a book featuring Doc Holliday and be just fine.) John D. Nesbitt's Death at Dark Water is not going to get your heart racing, but it is a thoughtful portrait of a small town shaken up by an uncommon event.

I also enjoy it when an author offers up a character of a more creative bent, such as the typesetter protagonist in Johnny D. Boggs's The Big Fifty. In Death at Dark Water, Nesbitt introduces us to Devon Frost, a sketcher and painter who has come to Tinaja, and specifically the Rancho Agua Prieta (translation: Dark Water Ranch, named after the shady pool that was originally the water source), to study and draw the ruins.

Nesbitt takes his time setting up the atmosphere, and fans of more traditional Westerns (especially those who enjoy the monthly series — I'm a fan myself) may be wanting him to "get on with it," but I enjoyed the leisurely look at Tinaja and its intriguing cast of characters. These include Petra, the daughter of the original owner of Rancho Agua Prieta, and her conniving stepfather Don Felipe.

A little less than halfway through, one of Petra's suitors, Ricardo Vega, is murdered, and Death at Dark Water becomes a sort of mystery novel with Frost playing detective. Most novelists would have put Frost and Petra in bed together, but Nesbitt gives his hero another interest in the form of local prostitute Ramona. She and Frost develop a friendly business relationship while he does his best to figure out who killed Vega.

Death at Dark Water certainly wasn't what I was expecting when I picked it up, but that actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It expanded my expectations of what a Western can be: that it doesn't have to be all about gunfights and trail drives, but that the pages of a Western can also contain a more classical kind of story. I'm intrigued to try more of Nesbitt's work.


Steve M said...

This was the first book by John Nesbitt that I read - there's a review on Western Fiction Review - and I enjoyed too. I really must read another of his soon.

Craig Clarke said...

Yeah, it's definitely an eye-opener. I've got Rancho Alegre around here somewhere asking for my attention.

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