Deconstruction of the American Western: Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Winter Counts, Simon & Schuster, 2020.

A break from the Far East in May with this book, which I had to instantly acquire and read after hearing the author speak at a fascinating panel on social justice at Bristol CrimeFest. The author is descended from the Sicangu Lakota people, although he did not grow up on a reservation. His mother, however, was raised on the Rosebud reservation and he is a frequent visitor there, so he knows what he is talking about (and I’m not for a minute suggesting that authors have to write exclusively from their own experiences, but in this case you can feel that additional layer of depth – both of description and of feeling). Wanbli Weiden manages to sneak in social commentary and cultural references without making it sound like he’s just blurting forth all his research. It all feels like an integral part of the story. For example, here is a succinct yet very powerful description of the culinary delights on the reservation:

There were only three restaurants on the rez. A sandwich shop, with perpetually soggy cold cuts and wilted vegetables, the grill at the Depot bar, and JR’s Pizza, a shack selling something that vaguely resembled Italian food. I had a few bucks left… and wanted to treat Nathan, so I took him to the pizza place, which was his favorite. There was a flyer tacked outside the restaurant with a picture of a smiling young woman: MISSING, DONNA FLYING HAWK, HAVE YOU SEEN ME?A grungy rez dog sat on the sidewalk outside the place, eating what looked like a dead bird.

The story features Virgil Wounded Horse (how is that for a charactonym?). The classic lone ranger of the American Western is a vigilante but he is not the stereotypical white man. He is the local law enforcer on the reservation when the tribal council fails to act and the American legal system refuses to act. I was stunned to hear that Native American nations are not allowed to prosecute serious felony crimes that are committed on their own lands, but that federal authorities usually can’t be bothered to deal with these cases. So justice gets stuck in a no-man’s-land and criminals soon realise they can get away with rape, domestic violence, GBH or even murder, and the victims’ families’ only hope is to pay Virgil to enact some ‘eye for an eye’ type of justice.

Our first impression of Virgil is not really a positive one, as we assist at quite a visceral scene of him beating up a man. In fact, we might be tempted to agree with his former girlfriend Marie and her family that he is little more than a thug. However, as the story goes on, we realise that Virgil has a much softer core and even a certain moral compass. He is raising his orphaned nephew Nathan and is very worried about the future the boy might have on or outside the reservation. When a group of external drug-dealers start targeting the reservation, and he finds out that Nathan might be involved, Virgil is determined to eradicate that danger to his community. Along the way, he struggles to come to terms with his Native American heritage, which he considers more often a curse than a blessing. He has distanced himself from the Lakota traditions, while Marie is trying to bring them back for a new generation.

The plot itself is exciting and at one point nail-bitingly tense, where you aren’t sure who is going to survive. But that wasn’t my main reason for reading this – I was fascinated by the insight into an entirely different world and way of life, and angered by the discrimination that Native Americans face. The author doesn’t sugarcoat the corruption, drunkenness, drug-taking and sense of hopelessness on the reservation, but he also shows how some individuals still believe in making a difference. But then you know that I like my crime fiction to be full of social commentary and to make me think without being too preachy. This novel achieves that in spades.

A very moving story, and the writing often transcends its action-heavy roots; the language, although deliberately simple, becomes poetic and powerful:

I sat there, and the wind stopped. The sun set, but I remained. I didn’t want to get up and face what I’d almost certainly lost. What I’d lost and still had yet to lose. The country of the living was gone to me, and I knew that I’d entered a different space, one that offered no solace but only the wind and the cold and the frost. Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude, but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.

The title, Winter Counts, refers to the traditional Lakota calendar system, where each year is represented by a pictograph showing the most significant event that occurred during the past four seasons of the year, with winter often being the most difficult and cruel season for the community.

Lone Dog’s Winter Counts for the period 1800-1871, from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Emma reviewed the book last summer, which made me put it instantly on my TBR list on Goodreads, but it took seeing the author in person to actually push me to do anything about it. I’m so glad I read it and I can’t wait for the next book in the series, which should be out by the end of this year.

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Raven?

7e42f475d4f202bdd68eac647fceabf5_bigger (1)After a little business-related break, here is another installment in my series of interviews with crime fiction afficionados. Raven is the mysterious nom de plume of one of my favourite book reviewers, whose opinions have an uncanny tendency to match with mine. In real life (as if books were not real life?!), Raven is a bookseller as well as an avid reader and reviewer. And I am delighted to say that we are also comrades-in-arms as contributors to the Crime Fiction Lover website.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Thanks to the encouragement of my mum, a keen reader, who started me reading at a very early age, I have always been a regular library user, and surrounded by books. I remember dipping into mum’s fiction collection so started on Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Eric Ambler and possibly some others that weren’t entirely suitable for my age at that time! However, the real turning point for me in terms of my passion for crime fiction came with the early issuing of my adult library ticket, and discovering the as yet unexplored delights of what seemed to me a never ending wall of crime books in our local branch. Consequently, I remember some of my first discoveries including Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, William McIlvanney and Derek Raymond, and my crime reading career was forged in earnest from that point on.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

Thanks to my early reading experiences, I have a long-held affection for American crime fiction, not so much the more mainstream ‘mass-produced’ authors, but those that practice the noble art of sparsity and social awareness underscored with a nod to the dark side. So currently, I would cite authors such as George Pelecanos, Ryan David Jahn, Dennis Lehane, Frank Bill and Ace Atkins as among my more recent favourites. Likewise, I am an ardent fan of Scottish and Irish crime fiction, despite being neither, as this feeling of the darker side of the human psyche seems more in evidence in the police procedurals of this sub-genre. Also, with what I call ‘the Larsson effect’, I am positively lapping up the increasing availability of European crime fiction in translation, thanks to publishers such as Quercus, Europa Editions and Gallic Books et al, producing crime fiction that really ticks the boxes for me. Not one for cosy crime I must admit!

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex and Irene, I found astounding in both their execution, and different take on the crime fiction genre. With my natural propensity to veer towards the darker side of the human psyche, and the positively masochistic preference for the probing psychological read, he has been a real discovery.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

No quibbling on this one. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series would be firmly ensconced in my washed up, hopefully waterproof, trunk. Also one of my numerous boxes of books that I would try to rescue in a fire!

Huge_pile_of_booksWhat are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

In the very lucky position of being an established crime reviewer and a bookseller, every day unveils a new reading treat, and a new or not so new author to read. Therefore, every new arrival on my crime radar is a treat in store and I particularly relish the discovery of a cracking new debut author. I look forward to reading them all, although I’m increasingly edgy about the new George Pelecanos collection not appearing until next year…

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

With my brilliant ‘day-job’ as a bookseller, I am also a keen fiction reader, so actually spend an equal amount of my time recommending my fiction finds. I am an avid reader of classic and contemporary American fiction, less mainstream British fiction, Australian fiction, as well as European fiction in translation, and have a store of favourites from Elliot Perlman, Andrey Kurkov, Jim Crace, Magnus Mills, Gregory David Roberts, Ron Rash, Tim Winton and oh- countless others. When time allows I also enjoy an eclectic range of non-fiction titles, as I suddenly develop a strange interest in something, and am driven to read extensively about it. Reading is my passion and I love sharing this enthusiasm with anyone kind enough to listen!

Thank you, Raven, and that explains why your reviews speak to me so much – since you mention so many of my favourites: George Pelecanos, Ed McBain, Pierre Lemaitre… Looks like the dark side of crime fiction appeals to both of us. And of course we are all envious of your day job!

For previous revelations of reading passions, see here. And if you would like to participate in the series, please let me know either in comments below or on Twitter.

Who Has the Larger Audience?

Courtesy of

A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?

I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on.  Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations.  For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans.  In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.

What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations.  It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!

Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts.  So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well.  However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.

translationglobeMy husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it.  You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster.  That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested.  Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.

‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’

I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there.  But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there.  And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.

Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?