Review: 'Royal Wulff Murders' has beautiful descriptions, thin characters

2013-09-08T00:00:00Z Review: 'Royal Wulff Murders' has beautiful descriptions, thin charactersBy KATE MANLEY For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
September 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

"The Royal Wulff Murders"

Keith McCafferty

Penguin Group USA

When I looked at Keith McCafferty’s book "The Royal Wulff Murders" for the first time, I thought “Great! Here is a series that will incorporate the outdoors, a popular sport and lots of local interest. I can sell this book to so many lovers of CJ Box and Craig Johnson!”

In fact, the author describes the country, the music of the water and the wondrous art of fly fishing in a way that made me sigh, as in this passage" “The owl was the sonorous heartbeat of the night, the river song its breath and these sounds resonated in Stranahan’s chest long after he had retired to the futon in his studio, as the bass notes of nature do with those who sleep alone.” The subject of fly fishing is dealt with so well, both emotionally and technically, that I was eventually supremely frustrated. By the third chapter, I was howling “Give me a character, please!” At least a character that is believable and relatable, and not a weird combination of stereotype and eccentricity.

The protagonist, Sean Stranahan, is Sam Spade in waders. He comes complete with a tortured past, a private investigator’s shingle and a weakness for mysterious women in trouble. Must they all be red-headed, long-legged sirens?

The sheriff’s deputy is an ex-cop from Chicago who says things like: “Be ‘bout as hard as follerin’ a turd skidding down the icing on a wedding cake.” Huh? An ex-cop from Chicago says that?

Then there is a Native American tracker whose name is Little Feather (really?) and a sidekick, Rainbow Sam, who is too, too predictable.

McCafferty records what the characters do and observes them as they do it. But how do they feel? What does the sun, the rain, the river do to them? Why do they do what they do? McCafferty writes: “He hopped on his right leg and fell hard. He must have hurt himself when he bailed out of the boat and hit the lake bottom. He lay flat a second, heart hammering." Only the last bit tells you this comes from the character’s perspective, not just an observer’s. Did the leg explode with pain? Was it surprisingly numb from the shock? Was it shattered, bleeding, sickening? We don’t know; we never find out.

I like the idea of this series, I like the setting, and I love the fishing talk of flies, tackle and the power of the fight. Keith McCafferty loves and beautifully evokes a place “where time was measured in heartbeats and minutes passed that could never be recaptured in the imagination — minutes that could be relived only if you were lucky enough to catch another.”

But I hope he develops into someone who writes with characters, not at them. I’m going to be watching for it because I certainly would like to catch another book and read more of McCafferty’s “minutes.” And I know there are characters in search of an author out there for him to find.


Kate Manley is a bookseller for Barnes & Noble in Billings. She reads in the boat while her husband fishes.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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