Patrick F. McManus is best known for his witty writings on the outdoors in his columns for Field and Stream and Outdoor Life and in his many books such as The Bear in the Attic and Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing. In his new novel, The Blight Way (Simon & Schuster, 2006), McManus tries his hand at mystery writing.
In what looks to be the first book in a series, McManus introduces us to the character of Bo Tully. Bo is the sheriff of fictional Blight County, Idaho. Like so many good leading men in the mystery genre, Bo is tall, smart, and ruggedly handsome. He has the ego of a man in a position of power, and has a way with the ladies. McManus makes him a man of our time, and mentions that "Sticking to Atkins for two months had stripped twenty pounds off his six-foot-two-frame" (which may mean that we encounter some heart problems in our hero in later books). There is more to this tough guy than meets the eye. In Bo's case, he has been to college where he studied art, and he continues to paint. Our hero drinks coffee from his "Picasso clown mug" even as he eats at Dave's House of Fry.
The plot of The Blight Way is pretty formulaic. After a quick introduction to the characters in Bo's office, we have a dead body by page seven. Bo begins the investigation accompanied by the obligatory sidekick; in this case it's Pap Tully, the former sheriff of Blight County and Bo's father. The plot thickens, as it must, and soon Bo and Pap have three dead bodies, one missing man, and some suspicious characters in town from the evil empire of Los Angeles. (It's hard to tell if McManus is intentionally feeding on the Idahoan mistrust of Californians or not). Along the way to the solution of the mystery, we meet many of the locals of the town of Famine, any of whom may be involved in the crimes.
McManus writes with a sure hand, and gives the reader a glimpse of several characters that are sure to return in later installments of the series. My favorite is Paul Cooper at Central Electric, a character of which McManus writes "He'd been a pretty decent fellow at one time, but then he's seen the movie A River Runs Through It. A day later he was out buying six-hundred-dollar fly rods and the flies and tackle to go with them."
The Blight Way is a good read, and looks to develop into a fine a series. There are several similarities here to another famous mystery series, that of Robert B. Parker's private eye Spenser (with an "s," like the poet): There is the somewhat intellectual tough-guy lead, his sharp-shooting and well-connected sidekick, and a professional woman as a love interest named, in both cases, Susan. But if the only criticism of the "Sheriff Bo Tully Mysteries" is that it is reminiscent of the Spenser books, McManus is in good shape. The world can always use more Spenser-esque types.