Thursday, June 04, 2015

Sin Killer

I began 2015 hoping finally to read some of the books that have been sitting on my bookshelves, almost untouched, for the past decade or two...or three.  So far, I have read five books from the past; Sin Killer is the second one reviewed here.  

Sin Killer (published in 2002) is the first book in Larry McMurtry’s four-volume series that, with publication of the second book in the series, began to be called “The Berrybender Narratives.”  The series is set in the 1830s American West, a period during which the West was still being explored by legendary mountain men and jealously protected by the Indians who rightly considered the region to be theirs.  The mountain men and their exploits, representing one of the most exciting periods in American history as they do, are deeply embedded in the American psyche as a period of which we cannot but help be a little proud (despite the harsh settler/Indian conflict involved).

But Sin Killer, being the pure Larry McMurtry fiction that it is, throws a different slant on the people and the times – beginning with the eccentric Lord Berrybender, an Englishman with more money than brains who wants to see the West before it loses its wildness to civilization.   All well and good if the aristocratic Berrybender had come to America and simply hired a couple of mountain men to guide him on his quest, but he did not do it that way. 

Instead, Berrybender decides to bring with him his wife, six of his children (seemingly randomly selected from the fourteen he has officially fathered), and a whole cast of retainers.  The retainers include: a valet/gun bearer, two tutors for his children, a “femme de chambre,” a cook, a kitchen maid, a laundress, a gunsmith, a carriage maker, a cellist, a hunter, a Dutch naturalist, a painter, and a stable boy.  Oh, and throw in a family dog and a parrot called Prince Tallyrand.

The family’s journey up the Missouri River is filled with enough danger, discouragement, and sudden death that most men would have quickly given up.  Not so, Lord Berrybender, a man filled with such a belief in his personal entitlement and invincibility that he allows nothing to discourage or stop him in his quest to kill as much American wildlife as any man can possibly claim. 

Larry McMurtry
Along the way, McMurtry introduces his cast of characters, including real life Indian chiefs, mountain men, and others of the period, and begins to flesh out those who are destined to become the books’ main characters.  Particular standouts in this first book are Berrybender’s oldest daughter, Tasmin, her twelve-year-old sister Mary, and, of course, “Sin Killer,” the mountain man around whom the four books are largely anchored.

Sin Killer is very much what readers have come to expect from, and what they love most, about Larry McMurtry fiction.  It is a blending of real life characters and quirky fictional ones that directly interact with the real ones in a way that almost always knocks the real life characters down a notch or two, exposing them as the human beings they really were.  Sin Killer is, in fact, great fun – and it ends on a cliffhanger that will have readers reaching for the second book in the series, The Wandering Hill.

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