Saturday, April 30, 2016


THE LONG COUNT by JM Gulvin (Faber, May 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Ranger John Quarrie is called to the scene of an apparent suicide by a fellow war veteran. Although the local police want the case shut down, John Q is convinced events aren't quite so straightforward. When his hunch is backed up by the man's son, Isaac - just back from Vietnam, and convinced his father was murdered - they start to look into a series of other violent incidents in the area, including a fire at the Trinity Asylum and the disappearance of Isaac's twin brother, Ishmael.

Jeff Gulvin may be British, but he beautifully captures the texture of Southwestern USA in this outstanding crime thriller. Returning to crime writing after a hiatus where he concentrated on non-fiction books (such as co-writing the account of actor Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's motorcycle journey from the northern tip of Scotland to the Southern tip of Africa), Gulvin delivers an exquisite tale that introduces a fascinating new hero who finds himself knee-deep in a series of puzzling and violent events among the small towns and rural expanses of 1960s Texas.

John Quarrie is a Texas Ranger and solo father looking to lead a simple life and raise his son well at a time the wider world is in flux. With his fellow Rangers tied up dealing with student protests against the Vietnam War, he has to drive across his large state to attend to an incident, only to be detoured by the body of a man found in his basement. While signs point to suicide, Quarrie has seen enough bullet wounds in his time to have suspicions the scene was staged. Similarly the son of the dead man, a returning veteran from Vietnam, can't believe his father would kill himself, and as Quarrie investigates a number of violent incidents occurring across Texas, including the killing of a cop, he realises that something very disturbing is going on, something powerful people are looking to hide.

This is a book that I liked immediately, and then grew to like even more as it developed. Gulvin draws the reader in with a smooth style that like his setting still has a bit of grit to it. Quarrie is an engaging hero, an honorable man who's been a little battered by life but is still trying to do the right thing. I particularly enjoyed Gulvin's evocation of the setting, the natural and sociological geography of Texas decades ago. In some way it's a simpler time - before the Internet and lots of forensics - but also a complicated time as wars rage in Southeast Asia and the world is rapidly changing.

THE LONG COUNT is wonderfully crafted - with plenty going on beneath the surface of the mystery story, without it ever becoming over-complicated or overwritten. The dust and heat of Texas was almost tangible, along with a creeping sense of unease as the truth starts scratching through.

There's a spare elegance to Gulvin's storytelling and prose, a deceptive simplicity - in a way it reminded me a little of Wiley Cash's Gold Dagger-winning novel THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY; multi-layered and lots going on, but never feeling rushed or crowded. Subtext aplenty, but not heavy-handed. That sense of timelessness and space that seems to bleed into Southern Gothic tales.

Like Texas barbecue, THE LONG COUNT may have slow-cooked for a long time, but the result is mouth-filling and packed with layers of flavour. A little heat, a little spice, and plenty to savour.

A delicious and satisfying South(west)ern Gothic tale. More please.


Craig Sisterson is a world-wandering New Zealander who writes features and reviews for newspapers and magazines in several countries. A former lawyer, he has interviewed more than 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed mystery writing onstage at many literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

1 comment:

  1. Sounds good. Will keep an eye out for it; I'm a sucker for Southern Gothic and it's an interesting time to set a book.