By Gwen Florio
The Permanent Press
Gwen Florio’s debut mystery novel “Montana” is deservedly a finalist for this year’s High Plains Book Awards. Florio, who retired as an editor and journalist for the Missoulian in order to devote her time to her own writing, has already won the 2014 Pinckley Prize for Crime Fiction for Montana. As an unapologetic and avid consumer of mystery genre fiction, I was intrigued and won over by the “Montana” protagonist, a veteran journalist named Lola with foreign reporting experience similar to Florio’s own. Lola, just pulled out of Afghanistan by her editor, comes to Montana to stay with one of her few close friends, a fellow journalist she has not seen for years — only to find her murdered behind her remote cabin. Lola plunges into the investigation, and must learn what for her are an entirely new set of cultural mores — as when she queries a rancher about the size of his spread in a local café. “The air in the room went dead. Verle leaned toward Lola and delivered an indictment heard by everyone in the room. ‘You’re not from here, so I’ll excuse you. You don’t ask someone how much land he’s got.’ ” The effect is something like V.I. Warshawski meets Joe Pickett.
As the book progresses and it becomes clear that her friend was in the midst of preparing a dangerous and scandalous newspaper expose, Lola is driven by the urge to finish her friend’s fatal story as much as by the need for vengeance or justice, a motive which enriches the plot. Florio, who previously reported from Afghanistan and various countries in the Middle East for the Denver Post, convincingly creates a character who has left that same dangerous journalistic environment and is still compulsively seeking its adrenalin rush and professional challenge. Lola’s initial reactions to both Montana and the U.S. in general offer a vivid portrait of a journalist’s post-traumatic stress disorder: as she retrieves her luggage, “she cast sidelong glances at her fellow passengers, retrieving ... cylindrical cases that looked as though they could contain grenade launchers. Fly rods, she decided after some consideration.”
Montana readers will appreciate the attention to the state’s geography and the look of the Montana landscape — including Lola’s puzzled distaste faced with innumerable anti-meth billboards — but this brings me to my one critique. A small point, but irksome to a fussy local: the Helena airport does not have a revolving door (when Lola lands in Helena, “the airport’s main door sighed its slow revolutions”) nor does it have an impressive grizzly bear in a glass case with claws “curved like scimitars.” There’s a bear in the Missoula airport and I think there’s one in Bozeman; Helena has no such display. Amid a story filled with real locations, this discrepancy irritates.
Absent this cavil that resonates only with local airport patrons, this is a fast-moving and well-crafted story that amply deserves the recognition and praise it has already received. After reading Montana, I placed my order for Florio’s next book about Lola, “Dakota,” and am eagerly awaiting delivery.