This is the debut novel which took America by storm winning the Anthony, Thriller, Barry, Lefty and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel! Expect more gongs to head its way as it enters the round of upcoming UK awards.
The author is a Native American with a mission to fight for justice for his people, and in Winter Counts he highlights areas where they are treated as second-class citizens. Law enforcement being top of the list. On Indian reservations there are two layers of policing, with the tribal force taking care of social order and minor misdemeanours. Serious crimes, such as rape and drug-dealing, however, must be prosecuted by the federal police. However, in the majority of cases, they choose not to do so. The only way victims of such crimes get any sense of justice is to hire the local enforcer (a polite term for vigilante) to teach offenders lessons they will not forget in a hurry.
Cue the opening of Winter Counts, which sees vigilante Virgil Wounded Horse administering a brutal beating to the local gym teacher who has raped one of his pupils. It’s a violent introduction with the risk of alienating the main protagonist from the start. However, we see the character’s softer side when his 14-year old nephew, Nathan, whom Virgil is raising after the death of his sister in a car accident, OD’s on his first hit and almost dies. This makes the fight against the gang trying to flood the reservation with heroin personal, particularly when the man involved is one who bullied Virgil through school and, more recently, took up with Virgil’s ex-girlfriend. Typically, however, this is one case the feds do want to pursue, and when they threaten to try Nathan, as an adult, as a drug-pusher, Virgil persuades his charge to participate in a sting operation. Which, inevitably goes south …
Marie, the ex-girlfriend, comes back into Virgil’s life, as Nathan lies in hospital. She is a welcome addition, adding an intelligent female perspective to what is essentially a man’s world. She is indicative of those who refuse to accept the limitations of life on the reservation. While her parents are ambitious, wanting her to attend medical school, her heart is not in it. She would rather be working for the good of her community, in particular by improving the standard diet on the reservation. Connecting Marie’s crusade to Virgil’s frantic race to save Nathan might seem a bit of a stretch, yet in that particular gut-punching moment when everything becomes clear, you just have to applaud the brilliant plotting (and wonder which clues you’d missed as you were tearing through the pages.)
In summary: Very, very good. Graphically brutal in parts. Not sure how I feel about Virgil Wounded Horse, but am looking forward to his second outing, so that I can make up my mind.