One for another is a classic Western set in Idaho in the 1880s. It is full of great characters, balances colonial racism with the recognition of indigenous wisdom and is also a cracker of a murder mystery. The novel introduces Hennessey Reed, a woman who runs the local bar and brothel, who has an alcohol and drug problem, who is a ‘sensitive’ and who has a stubborn streak a mile wide.
The novel is lusciously written, in un-contracted English that sends you to a different time, even if you do have to read some sentences a few times to parse their meaning: “Nathan alleged facial hair unsanitary. I was not the only person with self-preserving reluctance to disagree with this opinion – or any other he held, for that matter.” The small-town West is a setting familiar from movies and TV programmes and you immediately immerse yourself in the environment.
Most of the book is written from Hennessey’s point of view. She lives in the wonderfully named Melancholy, where the local law is Raff Cooper, and there is history between the two. She is a tormented character – “I am tired, Raff … I am tired of death. I am often tired of life” – with a solid backstory, which you piece together as you go along. There are lots of interesting characters, all with their stories, including Lizzie, Hennessey’s close friend, who along with her husband, Clay, runs the local general store.
The characterisation and plot hinge on the problems of living in a remote and unforgiving environment, where the women especially are living isolated lonely lives. The line between despair and insanity is dust thin. The crimes that Hennessey and Raff are struggling to solve are vile – the torturing and murder of young girls. There are plenty of suspects, and as the search for the perpetrator drags on the tension builds when a girl of special importance to Hennessey, Lizzie’s daughter Evangeline, disappears.
One of Hennessey’s most loyal friends is Raven, her wolfhound. She is not that popular with some people in the town, especially as it is moving from being a gold rush town to one in which “the trappings of civilisation had begun to take lodgings.” But she has her supporters, most of whom either work at or frequent her establishment – the Fleur-de-lis. Raff is initially reluctant to let her help with his investigation, but as time wears on he “conceded if the Devil himself were to appear on his doorstep to offer an opinion, he’d be motivated to listen with undivided attention.”
One for another is an absorbing read with great plotting that keeps you guessing. You can taste the dust, feel the mud and visualise the Western scenes: “Raff walked slowly to where his horse rested the tip of a rear hoof, dozing in the afternoon sun.” You really get to know Hennessey, but there are also questions about her and her past that lead you to look forward to reading more about her and her exploits in Melancholy, Idaho.