Saturday, March 16, 2013

This excellent police procedural, published in 1988, was the first book from Robert Sims Reid, another one of those writers who, sadly, has not received nearly the acclaim that he deserves.

Set in the fictional town of Rozette, Montana, it features Ray Bartell and Paul Culp, two patrolmen who are partnered together several nights a week. Bartell is the more quiet and thoughtful of the two and serves as the department's hostage negotiator on those rare occasions when such services are needed. Culp is a veteran of the Vietnam War and carries his share of memories. But both men are fairly tight-lipped and each keeps his own counsel, which may explain why their partnership succeeds.

Like a lot of other cops, Culp is divorced. Bartell is married to an attractive wife named Helen. They have a teenage daughter who does not get along with her mother, and Bartell's relationship with Helen has reached a point where they're basically drifting along, without a lot to say to each other.

On most nights, the life of a patrolman in Rozette is deadly dull and amounts to responding to the occasional false alarm, rousting homeless people who are squatting where they are not wanted and generally watching for trouble that rarely happens. But then one night, Bartell and Culp are making their rounds and discover a small fire in an abandoned building. Their investigation into the seemingly minor incident suddenly turns explosive in a way that neither Culp nor Bartell could have anticipated and which will change their relationship and both of their lives forever.

Reid, who was himself a police officer, captures brilliantly the tedium of the job and the sudden moments of frantic action and terror that can punctuate it. His cops sound and feel authentic, and he plumbs not only the nature of their jobs but the effects that the job can have on their lives outside the department. James Crumley, no slouch himself in the crime fiction department, describes Big Sky Blues as "Perhaps the finest police novel I've ever read." High praise indeed from one of the masters.

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