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In the first several pages of Chasing Demons, a novel of the Old West not long after the American Civil War, the following happens to U.S. Army Private Gus O’Grady: he kills two Apache Indians, saves the lives of a troop of U.S. soldiers, kills two more Indians, kills a bad guy, winds up being mistaken for a man who may have robbed a bank of $20,000 in gold, and gets arrested for possibly being the man who raped a lass in an Arizona town populated by Mormons, and meets a woman he thinks is far too good for him. Oh yes, and he deserts the Army after 13 years.
That’s just for openers.
Gus is a complex character. He knows his strengths—he’s an excellent soldier—but understands his weaknesses—not being fond of authority and deathly afraid of the effects of alcohol on him. He is also awkward in the extreme when it comes to women. He doesn’t shoot anyone that doesn’t deserve to be shot and lets his nobler impulses rule when others might run or turn to wickedness. He hopes his deserter status remains a secret, but it keeps on leaking out at the most inopportune times despite his impressive list of good deeds. Trying to forge a new path for himself in the dog-eat-dog, unforgiving times of our post-Civil War western frontier is no easy task.
Gus’s life, his demons, and his existential quandaries could well have been produced as a film noir set in fog-shrouded San Francisco during the late 1940s, shot in black and white, bad, bad guys and good-hearted dames with a past, bodies falling left and right, a sense of foreboding as the central character tries to escape his fate even as we well know he never will. No less an authority than the puritanical motion picture industry Production Code of the 1930s laid out the fate that awaits guys like Gus, even the best of them: “Sympathy with a person who sins is not the same as sympathy with the sin or crime of which he is guilty. We may feel sorry for the plight of the murderer or even understand the circumstances which led him to his crime: We may not feel sympathy with the wrong which he has done.”
Poor Gus . . . or maybe not. The book keeps his ultimate fate to the final page. No fair peeking!
Chasing Demons is for anyone who enjoys a fast-paced well-written, articulate novel. The memorable characters, clever plot, and terrifically entertaining story is every reason for you to wander into your favorite saloon, listen to the piano player banging out “Buffalo Girl Won’t you Come Out Tonight” on his tinny piano, watch the Five Card stud game over in the corner, then sit down at the bar, order a whiskey, two fingers if you please, and start reading Chasing Demons. Oh, and keep your revolver handy. You never know when you’ll need it.
Chasing Demons won 1st in Category in the CIBA 2018 LARAMIE Awards for Western Fiction.