By Alan Sorensen
It may be hackneyed, but it's true: The stories in the Gabriel Du Pr Montana Mystery series could have been wrenched from front-page headlines in the Havre Daily News.
Wolves are introduced into the Wolf Mountains, an island range amid cattle country.
A booby-trapped rural methamphetamine lab and an arsonist increase fire dangers exponentially during an extended drought.
Tourists, historians, environmentalists and moviemakers, intruding in the White Cliffs area of the Missouri Breaks in anticipation of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, clash with landowners.
A gold mine's discharge of heavy metals and cyanide into the groundwater threaten wildlife in the Little Rockies and children at Hays and Lodge Pole, as people throughout north-central Montana unite to protest mineral and petroleum exploration in the sacred Sweet Grass Hills.
Dinosaur and ancient human bones excavated near Toussaint attract gawkers and the national media.
These and other events lead to murders by parties unknown, whose secrets are not safe as long as Gabriel Du Pr, French Chippewa Cree, mtis, brand inspector, fiddler, jack-of-all-trades, occasional mystery solver and resident of Toussaint, Cooper County, Montana, is on the job.
The Gabriel Du Pr saga began in 1994 with the publication of "Coyote Wind." It was followed in shotgun blasts by "Specimen Song" in 1995, "Wolf, No Wolf" in 1996, "Notches" in 1997, "Thunder Horse" in 1998, "Long Son" in 1999, "The Stick Game" in 2000, "Cruzatte and Maria" in 2001, "Ash Child" in 2002, "Badlands" in 2003 and "The Tumbler" in 2004. Coming out in April is "Stewball."
Gabriel Du Pr and the ensemble cast of Montana characters surrounding him are the brainchild of Bozeman native Peter Bowen.
Besides providing readers with intriguing mysteries, Bowen intends his Du Pr series to introduce readers to the mtis people, a mixed-race people descended from French Canadian trappers and the Chippewa and Cree.
"They're the largest wholly unknown people in America," Bowen said in a recent telephone interview. "They're the children of the fur trade. They probably started back about 1200, because the French and Spanish and Basque were fishing the St. Lawrence and they were not about to tell the tax collectors where they were getting the cod."
Bowen's interest in the mtis, whose heirs pepper the population of north-central Montana, came at an early age.
"My mother was one of the many people who began what is now the Museum of the Rockies," Bowen said. "One of our neighbors, Merrill Burlingame, was near the end of his teaching career. I think he was the one who introduced my parents and our family to Joseph Kinsey Howard, the historian. He wrote 'Montana, High, Wide and Handsome.' He also wrote 'Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest,' which was published posthumously.
"(The mtis stories) happened up in Canada where nothing happens, so I was intrigued then. The Mtis in Montana, in the mid '50s, were stateless because they kept wandering back up into Canada and back to here. It wasn't until the mid '50s that they got any sort of recognition or assistance from the United States government." Bowen had previously written a series of farcical histories about the greatest scout of them all, Yellowstone Kelly. In those books, Kelly was intimately involved with all the great names of the time, from Teddy "Teethadore" Roosevelt to Winston Churchill, Sitting Bull to Jim Bridger. The Yellowstone Kelly books introduce the reader to Bowen's abundant use of comic relief, which is rife in his Du Pr mysteries.
"The Yellowstone Kelly books did very poorly, so I thought, 'I'll write a mystery,'" Bowen said. "So I just wrote this mystery about the mtis somewhere out in eastern Montana."
Bowen sent that first mystery, "Coyote Wind," to his agent and the agent took it to St. Martin's Press, which publishes more mysteries than any other publisher.
"I've been there ever since," Bowen said. "I don't know what goes on in New York City and I don't care to know. It's enough that I don't have to go there."
Bowen said he doesn't know how well his books are selling or where they sell the best. But he did admit that each succeeding mystery does better than the last.
"I don't think much about my books," Bowen said. "I just sit down and write them."
Bowen said it takes about a year for the publisher to come out with a book after the first draft is submitted. His latest publication is due out at the end of March or early April, and Bowen just completed his next mystery, due out in 2006.
Bowen has created a series of easy-to-read books that keeps the reader stumbling forward in page-turning eagerness. Bowen's Du Pr has been compared to mystery sleuths Nero Wolf, Lew Archer and Jim Chee (David McCumber, author of "Playing off the Rail"), and the antiheroes of Ernest Hemingway and Dashell Hammett (Jonis Agee of The New York Times Book Review). Ridley Pearson said, "'Coyote Wind' is the best of Tony Hillerman meets Zane Grey, but with an original and compelling voice that readers won't soon forget."
Bowen's characters use numerous literary devices as a matter of everyday conversation and thought to elicit chuckles or shudders from his readers. Ambiguity pops up on nearly every page, whether it is hyperbole, understatement, irony, pun, paradox, allusion or just plain outrageousness. He relies almost exclusively on dialogue and thought to move his stories along at lightning speed while salting the text with nuggets of historical information that are always germane to the story.
"I want them to be easy to read," Bowen said. "I don't feel any need to lecture people."
But when the mtis characters talk to one another, particularly Gabriel's girlfriend, Madelaine, to Gabriel, and Gabriel's granddaughter Pallas to any adult man, the language comes straight from the hip. There are no euphemisms or allusions here, and the speakers nearly always mean what they say.
When Pallas, a strongwilled 9-year-old, tells a young FBI agent nicknamed Ripper that she is going to marry him, the reader has to believe she will.
"Just look at the evidence," Bowen said. "I don't think the poor son of a b---- stands a chance. He'd need his gun."
Du Pr provides readers a glimpse into the character of the West when he declares that Montanans are law-abiding people - they obey every law with which they agree.
The language is as spare and bare as the eastern Montana landscape. Let the reader of discriminating and sensitive tastes beware: The characters are plainspoken folk, grounded by their harsh Montana semi-arid land rather than blown by the winds of political correctness.
Sometimes spoken language isn't even necessary, particularly when Du Pr does his thinking in Madelaine's presence. "You thinking pretty loud, there, Du Pr" is woven into the fabric of nearly every story.
Bowen admits to being a writer, but denies that he thinks about or wishes to discuss the literary devices that are so obvious in his stories.
"Writing a Du Pr novel takes about two weeks and I just send it off," he said. "I hardly think about it at all. It's very difficult for me to answer questions (about literary devices), because I frankly don't know.
"Authors spend most of their time not talking about literature and art, but sniveling about publishers and agents," he added. "The standard author's complaint is, 'I wish my publisher would do more.'"
Bowen admits to only one conscious styling - the uniquely American speech of his mtis characters: Du Pr; his girlfriend, Madelaine Placquemines; his daughter Maria; his daughter Jacqueline, her husband, Raymond and their 12 children; and holy man and trickster Benetsee.
"The rhythm and speech of these people is not English," Bowen said. "It's an interesting American dialect."
The dialect, which calls for commas for pauses in the most unlikely places, is as easy for Bowen to write as for the mystery or Montana history aficionado to read.
"It's not tedious at all," Bowen said. "I limp along."
The ensemble cast includes many non-mtis characters: Bart, an ex-drunk multibillionaire; Charles Foote, Bart's high-priced lawyer; Booger Tom, Bart's aging foreman; Benny Klein, Cooper County's reluctant sheriff; Sharon Klein, Benny's wife and owner and chief barkeep at the Toussaint Bar; FBI Special Agent Harvey Weasel Fat Wallace; Father Van Den Heuvel, a big, clumsy, caring priest who falls up stairs, slams his head in his car door and is herded away from heavy and sharp objects by his Toussaint friends.
Bowen said he is an average person who loves to write and has some book learning. He has been a carpenter, bartender, cowboy and hunting and fishing guide. His outdoors column, written under the name Coyote Jack, has appeared in Forbes FYI.
"I'm an ordinary middle class American boy - of course I went to college," Bowen said. "I was at the (University of Montana) writing program for two absurd semesters."
Bowen said he quit the program, but that wasn't the last contact he had with the school.
"I once got a letter from the then head of the program that said I had never been there and that if I ever maintained that I had been there, they would sue me."
Bowen is eastern Montana's answer to best-selling western Montana and Louisiana mystery writer James Lee Burke. Burke's mysteries depict Missoula, the Bitterroot Valley and the Blackfoot River as pristine, beautiful and inviting places to visit and live. Bowen's books paint a much less inviting picture. His is a portrait of an arid, windy land, by turns searing and freezing, where the unprepared are as likely to die from sudden snowstorms, flash floods or tenderfoot folly as in the jaws of a beast or at the hands of a man.
As a native Montanan, Bowen has a passionate understanding of the land and its people.
"I love the Plains. There's nobody out there at all," he said.
Bowen said the best advice he ever received came from fellow Montana mystery author A.B. "Bud" Guthrie Jr.
"He once explained to me that the only way to survive was to get a piece of land so poor you couldn't even raise hell on it."
That is advice that Bowen's characters have inerringly followed.