bad-countryC B McKenzie’s Bad Country has some great lead-in achievements to recommend it: winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize, the Spur Award for the Best Western Contemporary Novel, and an Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel. Heady stuff for a debut novel—and for the most part, deserved.

McKenzie gives us a protagonist of epic proportions in Rodeo Grace Garnet, a former rodeo rider turned private investigator out of Tucson, AZ. The Native American Yaqui lives alone with his faithful dog in an abandoned housing development, picking up odd jobs to get by. Rodeo’s violent reputation, referenced by several characters, comes from catching a serial killer, then beating him to death with his bare hands. Rodeo also has plenty of guns.

The story begins simply enough. Rodeo returns home to find a Native American man shot to death and lying face down just steps from his dwelling. He calls Sheriff Molina to come investigate, but the sheriff is at another site checking into a different dead Native American, also shot.

Rodeo picks up a referral for a job from his friend Luis. The grandmother of

teenager who has been shot in an apparent drive-by, hires Rodeo to find out who’s responsible. So we are immediately confronted with three different murders. What follows is the unraveling of how they (and subsequent murders) are related (and they are—though it’s difficult to follow). It’s a thorny mess with multiple layers and a cast of thousands. What I found hardest to accept (spoiler alert) was the reason for all the killings: Rodeo’s ex-girlfriend, the slutty, boozy, druggy, Sirena Molina—daughter of the upstanding Sheriff Molina—hires men from Mexico to cross illegally and commit the random killings of various Native American men, thereby establishing the false notion that a serial killer is at work. In the midst of the killings she has her father murdered, making it appear as though he’s another victim.

Along the way to this conclusion, McKenzie treats us to a heaping serving of the Southwest landscape and excels at anchoring us in it. The characters are well drawn and believable, especially the creepy/crazy Ronald Rocha. I challenge McKenzie’s decision to eschew quotation marks and felt frustrated with numerous run-on sentences. As a reader, if I have to wrestle too often with the text, I won’t finish the book. As a writer, I understand the impulse to use such stylistic anomalies in order to differentiate one’s writing from the masses. My thought is to let the characters and the story capture the reader, and save the experimental stuff for book three or four, after developing faithful followers who are more likely to stick.

On a scale of 1-10, this book rates a 7.

My predicted winner for the Edgar’s Best First Novel—unveiled Wednesday, 4/29—will be The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens.