Mr Wheeler is a writer that any reader of the American West should read, and a writer whose work, especially over the past several years, has been pigeonholed—as has much of the Western genre—into an old fashioned ideal of what makes a Western: bad guys with guns and loner heroes ranging across the badlands. A type of story that has appeal to many—myself included—but unfortunately puts off many would-be readers. And Mr Wheeler’s work would do well along side of such writers as Larry McMurtry, A.B. Guthrie, Win Blevins, and others who have escaped the tag of genre fiction.
His latest novel, Bad Apple, is an example of a different kind of Western—it is a modern story in the high country of Montana. It is a private eye story with all of the trappings: murder, suspicion, a beautiful and willing secretary, cheating wives, suspects who have something to hide, and a client whose actions are more than strange.
Cletus Parr is a Livestock Broker and occasional private detective. He specializes in livestock protection and made a splash a few years earlier when he broke-up a large and successful rustling operation. He is a bit of a dandy. He wears creased jeans and gaudy pearly-buttoned shirts: “he pulled on his best $62 Larry Mahan western shirt, cream colored with cerise roses and curly black stems rioting all over it.” He is the type of guy most of us try to avoid—a little obnoxious and a user—but he is also pretty good at what he does and worth a laugh from time-to-time.
The novel opens with Cletus wakened by the ringing telephone. It is his answering service. Bad Apple, maybe the best cutting horse ever, has been gunned down in his pen out at Rex Patee’s ranch. Patee wants Cletus out to investigate immediately, and Parr is more than willing because he foresees a sizable fee in his future. The list of suspects is long—Bad Apple has dominated the cutting horse world for years and there are more than a few owners and trainers who would love to see the last of him.
Cletus immediately suspects Patee, but he goes ahead and develops an overly complicated plan to finger the shooter. Cletus is all show and he promises more than he can deliver, but it sure impresses his client that he seemingly has all the angles covered. He then starts seeking out the local suspects, and there are more than a few, in a slick and fast-talker sorta way. He doesn’t get very far and as the novel progresses his suspect list shortens, but so does the patience of his client.
Bad Apple is a surprising story. It is pure mystery—a whodunit with enough charisma and American-style action to keep it fresh and exciting—with a logical conclusion and an interesting and original angle. It showcases a world, that of world-class cutting horses, that I knew nothing about in an accessible and extremely interesting and entertaining manner.
The protagonist is an interesting and good-natured parody of the hardboiled detective. He is more bravado than substance, but Mr Wheeler develops him in such a manner that what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in persistence and humor. His secretary is a light and whining version of Mike Hammer’s Velda, and he has a relationship with a cop that is reminiscent of Rockford’s relationship with Sergeant Becker: rocky, but in the end pleasant.
The mystery is handled well and the murderer isn’t revealed until the final scene. There are enough false leads and suspicion to keep the reader off balance and anxious about flipping the pages. Bad Apple is a change-up from Wheeler’s usual production, but it is definitely worth a look.