Guthrie calls this book his “magnum opus,” and his care and passion for the story are evident.
As always, he has brought all his considerable writing ability and professionalism to make a true master work.
Dark Prairies begins when small-town sheriff James Pruett finds out his wife has been murdered, shot outside her father’s ranch house. He quickly finds the murderer, his brother-in-law, in the town bar, and arrests him with no argument.
That’s the beginning of an unusual mystery story: the question is not “whodunnit,” but why Ty McIntyre killed his sister, Pruett’s wife, Bethy. Pruett, the chief policeman in the tiny Wyoming town of Wind River, is the one who has to lead the investigation into his own wife’s death. The conflicts of interest are tangled among legal, social and family ties, and the tension between Pruett and his in-laws is obvious from the start. Pruett also struggles with the natural urge for summary revenge. This is one of the best passages in the book.
The story shifts to Pruett’s estranged daughter, Wendy, in university. She begins a love affair with JW Hanson, professor of law and history, partly motivated by her wish to have him defend her Uncle Ty.
As Pruett investigates the case, we learn much about the history of Wyoming and the often murderous struggles over land, including the Johnson County War (brought to the screen in Young Guns). We also go into Pruett’s past as a Vietnam vet, a sheriff, an alcoholic and a flawed but passionate husband.
What I liked:
I have to admire Guthrie’s professionalism. He has slaved over the creation process, and rewriting. The editing is flawless, too. I cannot remember finding any typos or other errors, except for a missing period at the end of one chapter. Doubleday does no better than that.
Shelagh Rogers often says that some authors make the setting almost a character in a novel, and that’s certainly true in Dark Prairies. Readers can really see Wyoming’s mountains and prairies; we really get a feeling for the profound way that ranchers and others are linked to the soil.
Characterization always has been one of Guthrie’s main strengths. In Dark Prairies, we really get to know Pruett deeply. All his other characters are real — we can recognize people like Ty and his father, like Wendy and Hanson. Simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, Ty is probably the most complex and memorable character in the book.
The only weak characterization in the story is Wendy. How is it that she is motivated to defend the accused killer of her own mother. I know she doesn’t believe he really did it, even though he admits he did; but the book would have been strengthened if Guthrie had depicted Wendy’s emotional struggle a little more.
The only other drawback came in the long passages where Pruett beats himself up for his failures: his alcoholism, his affair and the consequent estrangement from his daughter.
Pruett’s struggle against alcohol is deftly handled and completely believable. Pruett doesn’t miraculously free himself of the bottle after some crisis like in a cheap TV movie. He fights temptation, loses many battles and makes a lot of mistakes. But it just struck me after about the third passage about Pruett’s slide back into a bottle, “I get it.”
Don’t take it hard, Rob — I promised myself and my readers that I would always give an honest review, and this is the only criticism I can make of this book.
Dark Prairies is a master’s great work. Don’t miss it.