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Winter Counts – David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Simon Bewick

I was lucky enough to be given an advance copy of David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts (advance for the UK – in the US the book has been out a while and has already won a wealth of award nominations) by Simon and Schuster at Harrogate Crime Festival this year.

Weiden’s debut fiction novel concerns Virgil Wounded Horse and the community of the Rosebud Native American Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil is the local ‘enforcer’ – the man who carries out vengeance for wrong-doings when the authorities – either the American legal system or the tribal council aren’t interested.

Virgil is, by his own admission, far from a traditional hero. He’s got his own demons,  is barely scratching a living and takes a little too much pleasure in some of his enforcing on those who made his life a misery back in school. Virgil is a conflicted character – conflicted about his heritage, local values and beliefs, and his place in the world looking after his teenage nephew, Nathan, following the death years ago of his sister. When his young nephew takes a drug overdose, Virgil sets out to find the man responsible for bringing Heroin onto the reservation. But as Nathan recovers and Virgil’s ex-girlfriend insists on helping him with his mission, things begin to get even more personal.

Winter Counts has a lot going on – narratively and thematically. You can read it as a straightforward crime novel; it certainly does a fine job of that with an original protagonist and a modern problem. There’s a lot of social comment in there as well. The insights into life on a reservation and the changes in attitude and beliefs of the different generations living on it are fascinating.

I confess that I have difficulty understanding the supposed division between ‘literature’ and ‘crime fiction’. There are just too many examples out there that effortlessly cross the line. The idea that crime fiction has little to nothing to say about society is ridiculously naïve. The idea that crime writing cannot be ‘quality’ writing equally so. Winter Counts is a good example of a book that straddles any simple classification.

The book may have a crime plot that any fan of the genre will devour and race through, but the ‘insider’ observations pull you up (but never out) as you read. And then there’s the writing. It’s not overly fancy:  at times the style and protagonist descriptions reminded me of the works of Richard Stark or James Crumley, while always being unique to the author. And then there are lines that really stand out. Lines like:

“Sadness is like an abandoned car left out in a field for good — it changes a little over the years, but doesn’t ever disappear. You may forget about it for a while, but it’s still there, rusting away, until you notice it again.”

There’s some quality writing going on here, and it’s easy to see why the book has done so well in the US . as well as being an Amazon bestseller, it’s a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by NPR, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Amazon, Sun Sentinel,  LitReactor, CrimeReads, Deadly Pleasures, Air Mail, MysteryPeople, and BOLO Books.

Full disclosure, we at Bay Tales are going to be helping the publisher with the UK live launch of the book featuring the author, David Heska Wanbli Weiden as well as some amazing guest authors including SA Crosby, James Delargy, Rob Scragg and Rod Reynolds. If you’d like to attend, it’s free and you can register at tinyurl.com/wintercounts