Red Rover, Deirdre McNamer's fourth novel, begins with a gunshot. Maybe it's an accident, or maybe it's a suicide. Then again, perhaps it's something more. The setting is Missoula, Mont., 1946, and the deceased is Aiden Tierney, a former FBI agent who'd been fighting a disease caught while chasing Nazis in Argentina. "Someone said the sheriff said Aiden was examining the gun and must have dropped it, and the thing went off," says Aiden's father. Pop doesn't buy the accident theory. "That boy's been firing shotguns since he was nine years old. You think he's going to handle one so stupidly that it slams him dead?"
When last we heard from Deirdre McNamer, one of the West's finest contemporary novelists, she'd written My Russian, a boisterous, larger-than-life novel packed with evangelists, trailer trash, murderers and mobsters. In Red Rover, McNamer returns to her quieter fictional roots - the small Montana towns and stoic characters that moved through her earlier novels, Rima in the Weeds and One Sweet Quarrel. After opening with the crime, McNamer toggles between 1946 and 2003, when the characters who know too much about Tierney's death are living out their final years working jigsaw puzzles at the old folks' home.
The mystery revolves around Tierney and Roland Taliaferro, Tierney's friend and fellow G-man, the last person to see Tierney alive. The author saves some of her best writing for the small towns and secondary characters, though - the loony town coroner, the ambitious young reporter, the gas station owner hollowed out by the loss of a son in Vietnam. This is where McNamer's genius for capturing the unromantic realism of Montana really shines. The tiny town of Neva "had become so elderly and gray," she writes, "that youth and noise jumped from its surface like colored fish."
McNamer isn't averse to touching on big global themes - J. Edgar Hoover and corporate profiteers come in for some pounding - but the book's true kin are quiet classics like Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. This is territory where folks like to just let things be. They don't appreciate a ruckus and they don't want their memories sullied, especially by questions about an upstanding citizen falling on his shotgun.
The author is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine; his upcoming book is The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw.
264 pages, hardcover: $24.95.Viking, 2007.