Monday, March 8, 2021


WINTER COUNTS by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco, 2020)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

I read a lot of really terrific crime novels last year. In a year where so much was lost, so much was cancelled, so much was less than it usually was, the quality of crime writing hitting booksellers' shelves was really, really high. The genre just seems to be going from strength to strength, being invigorated by new voices breaking through and already-published authors pushing themselves to new heights. 

Of all the new-to-me authors I read last year, my absolute favourite debut was WINTER COUNTS by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. It was a book recommended to me by SA Cosby 'backstage' at the online Bloody Scotland festival. I'd really loved Shawn's BLACKTOP WASTELAND, so thought 'if he's recommending this, I'd better give it a go'. While not widely available outside of the United States (I had to buy a US hardcover online rather than being able to get it from my local bookshop), WINTER COUNTS is well worth seeking out. It made me chuckle at the end of the year when I was helping put together 'best of the year' and 'my favourite 2020 reads' lists for various magazines and podcasts that Shawn and David's books were probably in a bit of a knife fight for my overall best 2020 read. 

Maybe Mr Cosby shouldn't have recommended it so strongly. 

WINTER COUNTS is set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a couple of hundred miles from Mount Rushmore - a place that is world-renowned for its giant sculptures of American Presidents, but of which you may have far more mixed feelings after reading more about its history. 

The setting is one of many very strong elements in WINTER COUNTS, both place and the people who inhabit it. Weiden puts readers right there, giving us a clear view of life on the rez in all its complexities. This is rich, layered storytelling that hums along with plenty of action and thrills while never skimping on depth. On the Rosebud Indian Reservation those who can't find justice from the legal system or tribal council (questions of justice are a strong theme throughout) call on Virgil Wounded Horse, the local enforcer. But when heroin threatens the reservation, and more particularly Virgil's nephew, he undertakes a dangerous investigation into those who profit from others' pain.

WINTER COUNTS is a superb example of what some have said about 'crime fiction being the modern social novel'. It's an absorbing, rich novel that moves with pace and power, while giving us plenty of insights into a variety of issues, from injustices historic and ongoing to questions of indigenous identity. Weiden, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, writes beautifully - there are some astonishingly good passages and descriptions. So it's the kind of book that will have you tearing through the pages while also wanting to pause now and then to just savour the quality of what you're reading, or ponder the questions that may be raised in your mind about events and the realities faced by indigenous peoples. 

Overall, WINTER COUNTS is a thriller with heart and soul. The kind of book that sticks with you beyond the events that have you turning the page. Character-centric crime fiction that packs a punch in a setting that pulses through its lyrical prose. It marks the arrival of a strong new voice in crime fiction - a very welcome one that hopefully will have much more to say. David Heska Wanbli Weiden hasn't just been added to my 'must-read' list of authors, his next novel will jump to the top of the TBR pile. 

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed Kiwi lawyer who now lives in London and writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at festivals on three continents. Craig's been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, McIlvanney Prize, is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His book SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020.

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