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the errand boy

10 december 2010

The Errand Boy by Don Bredes is an overpopulated but entertaining murder mystery set in the midst of the conflict between agribusiness and the family farm.

Our family farmer, Hector Bellevance, is also town constable in his corner of Vermont. He's a Boston tough guy rusticated to a life of truck farming and busting drunk-and-disorderlies, much as if Robert B. Parker's Spenser had somehow retired into the middle of a Russell Banks novel. Fortunately for the reader if not for Hector himself, trouble follows tough guys around. He's only been in Tipton VT for a few novels, it seems, but every few pages another ghastly killing rattles his cage.

Sustainability is a strong theme in The Errand Boy. Our villains build a grotesque egg factory on top of a hill, and poison the small holdings all around. Not only are they spewing pollutants and maltreating chickens, but the Tuttle family also seems to be connected to a methamphetamine racket that involves murderous Canadian bikers and assorted nymphomaniacs.

This really shouldn't be the stuff of good fun, but somehow, for crime-novel devotees, it is. Pathos is provided by the danger that Hector's taste for violence inflicts on his family. His wife Wilma spends much of the novel in a coma, and his daughter Myra is kidnapped to be held hostage not once but twice. But on the principle that an entry in a detective series probably won't traumatize its continuing characters too much, we can relax a little bit while Hector finds a way to retrieve them from their predicaments.

Hector's methods involve slapping people up, and shooting the still-recalcitrant. He always has excellent reasons for doing so: a lot of people in Bredes's Vermont are asking to be slapped.

The Errand Boy is an example of an interesting publishing phenomenon. Published in trade paperback, it bears the imprint of "Three Rivers Press," which sounds like the kind of artisanal New England outfit that might also sell Hector Bellevance's organic garlic on the side. But turn the title page, and learn that "Three Rivers Press" is "an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc." (which, the title page then neglects to tell us, is a subsidiary of Bertelsmann AG, which owns most of the planet).

We live in an age when anyone with a laptop can publish books under the imprint of Hollering Coyote Press or whatever we choose to call it; practically everyone with a manuscript these days creates an publishing house to go with it, and the quality of such quasi-self-published books is widely variable. Why then would a major press semi-conceal its identity under a seemingly fly-by-night imprint? It's a familiar-enough dodge from the supermarket, where Bloated Foodstuffs Ltd. markets Country Homespun items alongside its Mr. Chemical brands: same factory, same ingredients, different shtick. But it's ironic to see such stealth marketing on a book where Bloated Foodstuffs are the bad guys.

Bredes, Don. The Errand Boy. New York: Random House, 2010.

UPDATE 12.19.10: The author himself reminds me that Three Rivers is a well-established imprint with lots of big-ticket publications in its list. I must stress that I mean no disrespect to its authors or titles in themselves! But I still think that the proliferation of imprints under the aegis of the huge publishing firms is a kind of corporate camouflage. Insiders to the business know what's up, but the general reader is mildly misled by this apparent marketing diversity that masks a business monoculture.