Hard-edged, feisty Lola Wicks is more than angry. She’s royally pissed. In Gwen Florio’s debut novel Montana, Wicks, a war correspondent who lives and breathes her Afghanistan post, has been recalled for financial reasons by her Baltimore newspaper and assigned the drudgery of intern work. After years in Afghanistan, she sleeps in a sleeping bag, keeps her money stashed on her body, and finds the real world confusing. Sensing her unhappiness, her boss urges her to visit her friend Mary Alice who’s a newspaper reporter in Magpie, Montana, which consists of a three-block business district surrounded by sprawling ranches and the Blackfeet reservation, which is devastated by a huge meth problem. She plans to stay for only a weekend then wangle her way onto a flight back to Afghanistan.
But when she arrives at her friend’s cabin, she finds Mary Alice murdered. The sheriff, considered inexperienced and inept, won’t allow Wicks to leave until the crime is solved, so she sets out to solve it on her own. In addition to her amateur sleuthing, Wicks, who’s never owned a pet, flounders when she takes on the responsibility for Mary Alice’s animals—a dog named Bub and a horse named Spot. When it appears someone has taken umbrage at her investigation into Mary Alice’s death and wants her dead as well, she must decide whom she can and cannot trust. She’s drawn to Verle Duncan, a wealthy rancher with starched and creased jeans and a beautiful ranch home filled with Indian art. Then there’s Johnny Running Wolf, a Blackfeet who’s lived most of his life in the “white people’s” world and is campaigning to be the first Indian governor of Montana. He’s also the subject of Mary Alice’s most recent articles. Or Frank, the brain-damaged Iraq War vet, who seems to be everywhere.
Florio, a journalist twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, puts a modern twist on an Old West tale complete with cowboys and Indians, and blends it seamlessly with backstory of the Afghanistan War. She knows of what she speaks. She served as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, and now lives in Montana. Her twists are sharp, her characters vivid—even Mary Alice, who appears primarily as a corpse—and her imagery of the area flows like liquid gold. An excellent beginning to a hopefully long-lived series. A sequel is in the works for next year.