The Royal Wulff Murders: A Novel

The Royal Wulff Murders: A Novel

  • By: Seth Norman
The Royal Wulff Murders

By Keith McCafferty
2012; Viking Press
352 pages; hardcover, $26.95
Kindle edition, $12.95

So you’re sean shanahan—semi-starving artist, former private investigator, a hard-core fly fisher still emotionally entangled with that ex-wife you left behind when you moved to Bridger, Montana. You’re minding your business, such as it is, hanging on to hope and a paintbrush when—per the jacket blurb of The Royal Wulff Murders— “Delta siren Velvet Lafayette” stops by. She’s sultry a la Spade, wears lipstick the color of blood, and wants to hire you to—what else?—fish the Madison River for as long as it takes to catch trout with fins notched by her late father, by way of finding the riffle where he wanted his ashes spread. She’ll pay you a grand for this service, half down, and—shame on you for hoping—maybe a romantic bonus, TBA.

First thing you do? Suspend disbelief.

Shanahan tries. So will readers, I think. Because Wulff is fun so far, with sharp dialogue between characters you might like soon, along with fishing scenes that read rightly. There’s also the mystery of a young man’s corpse to consider, found in the Madison with a Royal Wulff pinned to his lip and a broken branch impaling an eye. Tragic, yes. Accident?

That branch, Shanahan notices, was snapped off a deadfall downstream from where the body lodged. Odd, that. So is news from a medical examiner whose first love was marine biology: Flecks found in the victim’s throat are detritus from lake water algae. And—just by-the-by—the dead kid might be Miss Lafayette’s missing brother.

Naturally, that makes Sean wonder. When beleaguered sheriff Margaret Ettinger finds Shanahan fishing a Royal Wulff, naturally she wonders about him, if only a little. But when the guide who found the victim invites Shanahan to fish Henry’s Lake from a float tube, then is promptly shot out of his own, Shanahan discovers sheriff Ettinger’s disbelief isn’t suspended at all. She’s pretty sure he’s hoist by his own or somebody else’s petard. For the record: The cuttbow Sean lost might have run eight pounds; the caliber of the sniper’s bullet is definitely .243.

If Shanahan is whirling by now—so are readers, also diseased trout—it’s time to twist. What began as a curious, erotically tinged and probably innocent interlude is suddenly gritty, bloodstained and baffling. To Wulff author Keith McCafferty’s credit, the plot tenses in ways that feel credible, or inevitable, in a murder investigation prompted by unusual evidence, and frustrated from the outset by the absence of identifiable motive. Both Shanahan and the sheriff cast blindly, also suspect falsely, betrayed by their own flaws, fears and strange bedfellows. Lines of inquiry break off, new clues fail to fit, and even stock conflicts—the friction between long-time Montanans and rich, recently landed residents—betray convention, as if that’s fair. Exhaustion compounds frustration and—when the body count rises—at last compels a reluctant alliance.

Credit MaCafferty with something else: A few issues back I marveled at the number of freshly spawned fly-fishing whodunits. I acknowledged the quality of these, along with appreciation for authors who know to which end of a tippet to tie a fly. McCafferty takes this a step or two beyond. He’s Field & Stream’s survival editor, and that savvy shows in subtle and satisfying ways. There’s a science to working a tracking dog across wet ground, for example, and wading brogues leave prints three sizes larger than the same fellow wearing cowboy boots; more important, if a Royal Wulff’s a critical clue, you better check for a tier’s signature.

Inserted poorly, that kind of information drags, as happens too often in police procedural mysteries. McCafferty’s adding a new chapter to the handbook on which these are based, but in Wulff his woods and fishing craft appear in conversations that also reveal character, sound like characters, build relationships, and change direction of the story they move along.

That’s writing craft.

A reader may not care where McCafferty found his flair for fiction, just that he has it…Wulff’s his first novel, not likely his last.

Books editor Seth Norman is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman and many other great reads. He lives in Bellingham, Washington, where he toils with local politics, smallmouth bass and chum salmon.