1975. Things are not going well in the border town of Pinto in Starr County, Texas. Local man Frank Boles has been found shot to death in his home. Deputy Roe found a Mexican man in his apartment, untalkative but otherwise cooperative when he was cuffed. The Mexican had a gun he didn't try to use and ten thousand dollars in cash on him. In the dead man's attic was one hundred thousand dollars worth of contraband. It's the job of sheriff JD McKinnon to make sense of it all.
Starr County Line by Chris Gilbreath is a gritty crime novella set in 1975. In its way, it is a successful amalgam between the classic Gary Cooper movie High Noon and the works of Cormac McCarthy, particularly No Country for Old Men. It's a book about an old lawman, grown up on traditional values, so tired of the job but unwilling to quit. It's about a culture clash of old values versus the changing world. It's about one good sheriff against an almost insurmountable wave of Seventies-era Mexican drug smuggling.
JD McKinnon is an old man. He was a proud soldier who served in WWII, surviving Iwo Jima before coming home to serve as the law. He knows what needs to be done and he does it. Those same values are what get him in trouble. He refuses to let the right thing go when more sensible men would have looked the other way. He gets involved in a fight that's not his, even though he knew things were going that direction. And when everything falls apart, he protects the ones he loves by refusing their help and going it alone.
I admit that this isn't my usual reading genre, so I can't give a litany of my favorites that this reminds me of. But despite that all, this was a compelling read. The novel is conveyed in shorter, almost staccato chapters as it follows McKinnon's investigation and goes into his own back story and personal life. There's something that feels very 1970s to the writing style that you'd think it was that time period even if it hadn't been explicitly said. The feeling of a back-then small town on the precarious border definitely comes through in the writing. For someone who reads this sort of novel occasionally, something that practically drips with the suchness of the genre was very comforting and appealing.
My only criticism is that it's a novella. I wanted it to go on longer. Before I knew it, it was leading up the climax and then it was over. I could have basked a little longer in the crime of Pinto, Texas and the aching bones of JD McKinnon. That said, I bet most novels and novellas out there would be proud to hear that they should be longer; too many are unfortunately in the should-be-shorter category.
If you're looking for a 1970s border town crime novel, you should check out Starr County Line.
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