In 1994, during a hiking trip in southeast Utah, a Pasadena trial lawyer named C. Joseph Greaves and his wife stumbled on two human skulls in a remote red-rock canyon. Each skull had what looked like a bullet hole through the back.

Greaves became obsessed with untangling the story behind those skulls, spending more than a decade poring over historical archives and old newspapers. He ultimately uncovered the long-forgotten 1935 Greenville, Texas, "skeleton murder" trial, a story he came to feel was one of the great untold tales of the West.

At 50, he left his job as a lawyer to write Hard Twisted, a masterful literary fiction debut based on the true story of Lucile Garrett, a 13-year-old who trades a hardscrabble life with her homeless, alcoholic father in Depression-era Oklahoma for a brutal, on-the-lam "marriage" to a drifter named Clint Palmer. The two embark on a rambling journey through the American West that ends in murder.

Greaves resurrects these long-gone, real-life figures in a way that feels both imaginative and respectful. In what can be a very dark story, he illuminates Lucile's ugly world with unexpected moments of beauty. He succeeds in capturing both the fear and occasional elation of a girl old enough to become pregnant but young enough to still want a doll of her own to play with. He writes heartbreakingly of Lucile "breathing softly, as though smelling somehow her unborn child, and remembering in the smell of it some other, former life."

Greaves' understated writing captures the dry, raw-boned beauty of the land and reproduces the distinctive dialect of that time and place with a pitch-perfect ear. "At the top of a low rise he stood akimbo, surveying the landscape of his childhood: the joys and sorrows etched upon the weathered barnwood and the hardened turnrows and the dying play of sunlight on the roof shakes," he writes of Palmer. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, another writer of unflinching Western stories, feel apt. In its historical weight and narrative power, Hard Twisted is as epic as the rugged mesa and range its characters inhabit.