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mineral spirits

11 june 2007

At the start of Heather Sharfeddin's Mineral Spirits, ten-year-old Gray Dausman finds a decomposed corpse near a riverbank in small-town Montana. It's up to Mineral County sheriff Kip Edelson to identify the body and ascertain whether foul play got it there. But if you are expecting detection from Mineral Spirits, be warned: Sharfeddin's novel amounts to an anti-procedural. If you want lessons in sheriffing, take them from someone other than Kip Edelson.

In fact, though he's the hero of Mineral Spirits, Kip spends most of the novel doing his best to deflect a reader's sympathies. He picks his way through a list of clues in the most desultory fashion, spending most of his energy on behaving badly to his wife, cadging free meals off a lonely witness, and kicking his cat. But he does show at least one admirable trait. Though he's never wanted a kid of his own, he becomes protective of the intense, lonely, resourceful Gray Dausman. Their relationship is the fulcrum of Sharfeddin's novel, and Kip's paternal instinct is his most admirable quality.

Everyone else in this part of Montana is even less admirable than their sheriff, proving that heroism is an entirely relative quality. This is a corner of the West full of drunks, drug addicts, whores, pimps, negligent parents, and people who kill casually over small sums of money. Sharfeddin's world is bloody and dangerous, and she generates considerable suspense just keeping us uncertain that Kip and Gray will actually make it out of the mess alive.

Eventually the mystery plot assumes Chandleresque dimensions of intrigue and jackstraw-like interlockings of characters and motives. And eventually that becomes a little hard to follow. But Sharfeddin isn't interested in mystery so much as in trying to explore how an overly masculine hero can function believably, even sympathetically in contemporary realist fiction. Kip Edelson seems to be the victim of chronic testosterone poisoning, an affliction that manifests itself in several acute incidents where you cringe at his idiocy. But he's a good man in the Western mold, if not much of a cop. He's incorruptible, crusading, and highly principled even when those principles aren't good for his interests.

Kip Edelson first appeared (in a lesser role) in Sharfeddin's first novel Blackbelly. Two books don't quite constitute a series, and though Sharfeddin has evidently signed to write two novels for Bantam, a series of "Sheriff Kip Edelson Mysteries" does not seem in the offing. Perhaps a good thing, because though I'd like to see more of the character, Mineral Spirits deftly avoids mystery-series formulas, and is all the better for mixing genres, unbalancing its readers' expectations.

Sharfeddin, Heather. Mineral Spirits. Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works, 2006.