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The Red Power Murders

By Thomas King

HarperCollins, 317 pages, $19.95

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Ah, that Groucho Marx were still among us. One suspects that a man who played Rufus T. Firefly, Otis B. Driftwood and Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush would delight in a book about a reluctant ex-cop named Thumps DreadfulWater. Perhaps the great Groucho would have even attempted a film version of The Red Power Murders, this fast-paced and funny take on the detective genre, featuring a largely native American cast. After A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, why not A Week on the Rez?

Canadian author and scriptwriter Thomas King, writing as Hartley GoodWeather, is back with his second offering featuring the aforementioned DreadfulWater, an ex-detective with a tragic past and a desire for an uneventful future. Having retreated to the town of Chinook in a western state (Montana?), he works as a photographer and spends most of his time battling a Volvo that won't start and a cat that won't stop throwing up.

It's a quiet-enough existence. Our man Thumps passes the winter days trying to stay warm while seeking photography gigs. That is, until the dead bodies start piling up. Thumps is promptly enlisted by the local sheriff -- a taciturn type named Hockney -- to aid in the investigation. Hockney already has a full-time deputy called Andy, a dim bulb who makes Barney Fife look like Carl Sagan. The reticent Thumps comes on board, suffering the obtuse Andy's wrath as he does, and is soon embroiled in a complicated political situation involving more shifty characters than a poker game at Karl Rove's house.

At the centre of the controversy is Noah Ridge, charismatic leader of the RPM (Red Power Movement), writer, activist, media star. And an all-around jerk whom not a few people would like to see dead. While snooping around, Thumps soon bumps into a little bit of his own history; it turns out that Ridge's assistant is the fetching Dakota Miles. Dakota is Thumps's ex-girlfriend, and she has secrets of her own, some of which go back three decades.

In fact, there are plenty of secrets to go around here. FBI agents, both dead and living, begin to appear. The movement known as RPM has a convoluted past, and not all of it turns out to be honourable. A subplot involving a murdered native woman, as well as pilfered documents and a few million dollars in bearer bonds, emerges. Red herrings abound, and soon Noah Ridge and the movement known as RPM are as suspect as a Barry Bonds blood test.

The cast of characters is disparate and numerous. There's an eccentric bookstore owner, a sexy coroner and a caustic diner owner (female) named Al. As well as a sage old Indian called Moses and a troubled teen with a propensity for timely Internet research.

The problem with such a large ensemble is that some of the more interesting characters get lost in the mix (gee, maybe that's why Groucho dumped Zeppo). Most notably, the reader wishes to see more of the sad and beautiful Claire, Thumps's sometime girlfriend and an intriguing character in the brief scenes she's allowed.

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But the driving force is Thumps himself. King/GoodWeather has created a complex central character who quite purposefully is antithetic to the classic leads of, say, Hammett and Chandler. Neither a hard drinker nor a gun-toter, Thumps appears to harbour a jones only for coffee. And possibly Claire. His interior monologue, however, provides the reader with an occasional tip of the fedora to Chandler. For example: "Thumps couldn't tell the dead man's age, but one thing was for sure: He wasn't going to get any older."

The writing is feisty and fast, although sometimes a tad too whimsical ("Thumps . . . headed straight for the fireplace, where a happy gas flame was calling to him," for instance, could have hit the editor's floor). But it's a minor complaint. King is having fun here, and the reader suspects he knows whereof he writes, of political movements and activism and of the fame and notoriety that can accompany such things.

Mark Twain (who knew from whimsy) was of the opinion that the truth was the funniest joke in the world. All good satire springs from that notion, and this book qualifies as such. While creating the story, the author has drawn upon certain events of the past few decades (the account of the murdered woman is clearly inspired by the death of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a native activist who was murdered in South Dakota 30 years ago), and in doing so succeeds in exposing the good and the bad on all sides.

Never is that more apparent than in the rendering here of native activist Noah Ridge. Handsome, vain and glory-seeking, he is about as deep as a dimple on a golf ball. At one point, he brags to Thumps about heading to L.A. to appear on the "Leno show." He might just as well have saved his breath. A boast like that would never impress a guy like Thumps DreadfulWater.

Or Rufus T. Firefly, either.

Brad Smith's latest novel, Busted Flush, will be out in paperback momentarily.

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