Spokane-based author Patrick F. McManus is rightfully known mainly for his outdoor humor writing and New York Times bestselling books such as “Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!” and “The Grasshopper Trap.” However, after reading one of his Sheriff Bo Tully mysteries it may start seeming like he missed his true calling by not branching out into crime fiction sooner.
“The Blight Way” is the first book about Sheriff Tully and the eccentric criminals and upright citizens in and around Blight County, Idaho. McManus grew up in Idaho and he used to work as a police reporter. He was able to use his first-hand knowledge to combine classic McManus humor with fast-paced procedural elements in a charming and intelligent way.
A synopsis posted on Amazon captures the spirit of the book quite well.
According to Publisher’s Weekly,
… Bo is blessedly unconcerned with the niceties of search warrants, suspect rights or any other impediment to his effective style of law enforcement. On the 75th birthday of his father, Eldon “Pap” Tully, former Blight County sheriff, a dead body turns up at the ranch of a family of ex-cons. Bo decides a murder investigation would be the perfect birthday present for Pap. The dead man is from Los Angeles, as are the next two corpses Bo and Pap find at the scene of a heavy firepower ambush—not Blight County’s usual low-rent crime. Behind his hayseed cop exterior, Bo is smart, sneaky and relentless. Add lots of quirky suspects, criss-crossing motives and artery-clogging meals at Dave’s House of Fry, and McManus delivers a brisk, hilarious smalltown cop mystery.
McManus did a masterful job of making the fictional Blight County and the nearby small town of Famine seem like real places. The poverty, the almost wistful way people talk about the darker parts of their local history and the strong connections people in the area feel to the outdoors are just a few of the details that will ring true to anyone who ever lived in Idaho. Through careful use of details about the Tully family’s history, McManus creates an incredibly vivid image of a community where people on both sides of the law have been up to no good for about 150 years.
Bo is the latest in a long line of Tullys who served as sheriff in Blight County. His father Pap was notoriously corrupt when he held the office. He also didn’t worry much about things like making certain he had the right suspect or following proper procedure. Despite these rather severe character flaws, most people see Pap as a lovable rascal.
There is some bad blood between Pap and the family that found the first dead body, because the Scraggs have followed their own tradition of murder and cattle rustling for several generations and Pap dealt with them in ways that weren’t always legal when he was sheriff. Somehow, this doesn’t keep most of the Scragg clan from basically liking Pap. Despite most of the Scraggs being willing to cooperate with Bo and Pap’s investigation, anecdotes about things they and their ancestors did over the years force Bo to consider the possibility that they’re involved in the latest murders.
With help from Deputy Buck Toole and expert tracker Dave Perkins, the Tullys start pursuing leads that reveal many potential suspects. A missing rancher named Vern Littlefield may somehow be involved, as well as two new employees who are supposedly in the process of converting his property into a vineyard. Four of Littlefield’s ranch hands who were recently laid off may have killed at least one of the victims. After a while, it starts seeming like most of the characters in the book are guilty of something.
Nobody in Famine is willing to give Bo enough useful information to build a case, so he tends to bend rules when it is expedient. Somehow, McManus manages to make Bo’s “do it and get a warrant later” approach to law enforcement seem like part of his charm rather than proof that he is just as bad as Pap in his own way. The “Blight Way” tends to favor common sense over the strictly legal. This used to result in innocent people being executed sometimes, but one gets the sense that Bo is too good at judging whether or not somebody is guilty to make mistakes like that.
The plot is leaner and faster than later books in the series such as “The Huckleberry Murders”, but McManus still manages to amuse his readers with the exploits of his odd supporting characters and get readers thinking about some of the less pleasant moral implications of the “Blight Way” without ruining their ability to enjoy the story.
Simon and Schuster recently decided to stop publishing the Bo Tully books, but readers in the Spokane area can still order them from Amazon or find them at local public libraries. The books are also available at the author’s web site.