by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n the west end of the dusty little hi-line town of Cut Bank, Mont., a long and slender trestle carries the railroad across the namesake canyon and slings it into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. On the east end of town, someone has erected a two-story penguin to commemorate the area's once-upon-a-time status as the coldest place in America. But even with its distinction as the birthplace of author Deirdre McNamer, I would not want to call Cut Bank my hometown.
My hometown is an hour and a half to the northeast, nestled between three mountains known as the Sweet Grass Hills. McNamer, in her novel Red Rover, describes the Sweet Grass Hills as floating "above the plains like an idea that was easy to understand. Up close -- among them and on them and up them -- they would be different. The light there became dappled, variegated. The summer's last leaves, very thin leaves, maroon and apricot, flickered on the chokecherries. There was shelter: hollows and coulees and lees. So the wind became an unsteady thing, stopping and starting, dying and rising. In the suspensions, there was the sound of birds at rest, adjusting, talking."
It's a beautifully informed description of an area that has been considered sacred for centuries, but which is largely forgotten due to its isolation. "My dad used to ride horses in the Sweet Grass Hills," McNamer tells me when I telephone her at her home in Missoula. Within moments, we've located a common name among her family's friends and mine. As she writes in Red Rover, "In Montana it usually took about two minutes of conversation with a stranger to establish some sort of connection."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & ed Rover is, above all, a crime novel built from stunning sequences of suspense, double-dealing, deceit and odd, glinting moments of bravery. But in a departure from the genre's roots in urban industry and society, McNamer has located her battleground of ethical dilemmas in the heartland of the New West. McNamer takes the connections that stretch across Montana's prairies and over its mountains and weaves a mystery from them.
Lindbergh's flight over the state links one small town to another, one person's memories to another person's memories. Reputations are tainted and tinted as they make their way across the state during the novel's 75-year time span. And no matter how deftly she leaps over Montana's geography or cuts through its history, McNamer is always revealing a plot that draws the government, the medical industry, the media and mere mortals together to answer the question: How did one of the main characters die?
"I love to read, wondering, 'Who did it? How did it happen?' I read for that kind of pleasure," McNamer says.
Red Rover leaps through time. Back and forth, between past and future, the book's narrative continually circles the key mysteries, examining them from multiple perspectives. The effect is more cinematic than literary -- reminiscent of directors like Hitchcock and De Palma who can jump from one point of view to another with an increasing sense of ambiguity.
"Somewhere in the middle of writing this, I taught a course, and I decided to call it 'Time and Trouble.' I really wanted to investigate how you can manage time in fiction, and what you can do with time, and how you can create tension without the reader feeling yanked around and manipulated. I was really engrossed with how the best crime writers keep you interested and hanging and yet not feeling messed with."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ar from feeling preposterous, the novelistic twists in Red Rover have a credible intensity. From her opening invocation of the Sweet Grass Hills to a climactic sequence in a nursing home, McNamer builds her fictive Montana with precise observations that capture the vitality of the state.
"There is a kind of West that is very much more complicated and complex than the Marlboro Man West. There are cities in the West like Butte. And there are lots of different kinds of people in the West who came west when our grandparents did."
McNamer evokes this Montana with dignity. (Only once did I find the word "crick.") She also avoids matching the flamboyance of her story's timeline and range of characters with an equally extravagant style. Instead, McNamer's prose is burnished to perfection, surrounding her story with undulating plains that occasionally and naturally give way to breathtaking mountains. It is a prose that steadies her characters and provides a ground to their action, even when the ground is falling away from under them:
"The car pulled slowly up the highway into swirling snow beneath pointed black pines. The side of the road began to drop off steeply, and before long it seemed they crept along a sidewalk, a runway, that hugged the mountain on one side and ended in air on the other. A huge gust and the mountain vanished. Now they were utterly lost in snow so directionless and whimsical and blinding that they could have been traveling sideways through it, upside down. They could have been lifted off the earth."
Deirdre McNamer reads from Red Rover at the Liberty Caf & eacute; in Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave., on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at 7:30 pm. Free. Call 838-0206.