NEW WEST SAGA WITH OLD WEST VIOLENCE AND VALUES, says JIM NESBITT who wrote this review:
At their best, the Western and the hard-boiled crime novel are distinctly American art forms that rise above the conventions of genre, the clash of good guys and bad guys and the word maze of the whodunit.
They hit this literary high ground when their authors tell a tale that not only entertains the reader, but provides trenchant and penetrating commentary and observations on everything from politics and the foibles of social expectations to music, the culture of a time and place, the frequently dicey interplay between men and women and the impact of the land on the people trying to wrest a living from it.
Chalk up Baron R. Birtcher’s South California Purples as a book that punches well above the weight of a crime thriller or modern-day Western. And let’s settle something right here — this book is more of the latter than it is the former, although enough bad deeds, violence and mayhem take place to give it a hard-boiled edge.
At the heart of Birtcher’s grim tale is rancher Ty Dawson, a Korean War veteran with a dark and troubled history that is obliquely hinted at. He wants to be left alone to punch cattle on his family ranch, the Double Diamond, tucked in the river valleys and mountains of southern Oregon and fictional Meriwether County. And those cattle are what give the novel its title — a breed so deeply black they have a purplish tint when the sun hits them just right.
Dawson is old school in his ranching — wouldn’t be caught dead rounding up cattle with a chopper. A third-generation rancher, he’s also old school in his sense of duty to his family, the land and the way of life he and his neighbors have carved from this special place.
Those values set him up to be badgered by a smarmy sheriff into taking on a job he doesn’t want — the deputized lawman charged with keeping the peace in the southern end of the county. The sheriff is cagey and plays up the threat of bikers, dope dealers and violent agitators drawn to a grassroots protest over a Bureau of Land Management roundup of wild mustangs for sale and almost certain slaughter.
The story is set in 1973, the year Saigon fell and the American economy was poleaxed by the Arab oil embargo. President Richard Nixon was caught in the glare of the Watergate scandal and federal agents and Native Americans clashed during the bloody occupation of the Wounded Knee, South Dakota reservation by the American Indian Movement.
The Kennedys and Martin Luther King are dead and America is torn ragged by a decade of often-violent turmoil over the Vietnam war and civil rights. It was a time when Americans were sharply divided and learned to distrust their leaders, turning deeply cynical about the country’s future.
This is where Birtcher hits the high ground, in the telling of these events through Dawson’s eyes and the rancher’s desire to protect his family, his ranch and his rural community from the turmoil he sees tearing up the country he loves. At the same time, Dawson is no law-and-order reactionary. He values the rights of the protesters to speak their mind and demonstrate their opposition to the mustang roundup, no matter how much he thinks they and the local political activist who organized the protest are wrong-headed and naïve.
Birtcher’s prose is lean and semi-terse, but lyrical in his descriptions of the land and the tumult of the times. His style also serves him well in describing Dawson reluctantly stepping into his tin star role and the rapid escalation of violence that unfolds, from the murder of one of his ranch hands on the far reaches of his ranch to the grisly murder of two young men filming a documentary about the protest and Dawson’s confrontations with a biker gang that include a barroom shootout.
He serves up some rough, Old West justice that stops just short of hot lead when he and two of his deputized ranch hands take down the bikers at a local motel where the lawmen find a local girl getting gang raped. That arrest will have violent consequences aimed at Dawson, his wife and his college-age daughter.
Throughout the story, Dawson is very much an Old West lawman sticking to his code and his sense of right, wrong and duty as he wades through the corruption, incompetence and bankrupt morals of modern times. He has a strong sense that he is being set up as a patsy by unseen hands that are part of a larger conspiracy that involves state and federal officials. It is a hunch underscored by the appearance of a chopper-riding ex-Navy SEAL who backs his play during the barroom shootout and makes cryptic references to forces larger than Dawson.
Unlike far too many authors these days, Birtcher keeps a tight rein on the conspiracy angle and the actions of unseen and shadowy government players, keeping both the narrative and the action firmly centered on Dawson, his family and his ranch hand stalwarts. That reinforces the Old West feel of a novel set at the dawn of New West times, with a character in Ty Dawson who echoes a Gary Cooper striding down a dusty street alone at high noon.
The author provided Jim Nesbitt a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.