June 10, 2013

Crime-Fiction Issue: "Rough Deeds"

By Annie Proulx
~5100 words

A timber rush in colonial New England sets up a confrontation between a French trader and a Scottish mill owner.

Having fled to New France (Canada) from a suffocating existence across the Atlantic, Duquet parlays his frontier skills and connections with refined Bostonians into a small timber empire in the forests of Maine. But his success breeds competition, and when he captures a tree poacher on his land and tortures him, the victim's father plots a grisly revenge.

This is a well-researched piece, rich in historical detail. Proulx is adept at showing how national political rivalries are no impediment to the frontier ambitions of determined individuals. The French Duquet profits from the advice of an Englishman and trades lucratively with Scottish shipyards; and though he meets his fate at the hands of a Scotsman, it is the result of a personal vendetta rather than the colonial rivalries that motivate their mother countries.

Unfortunately, the story's compelling historical dimension is undermined by a serious character deficit. Nothing in Duquet endears us to him. We know that he is ambitious and resourceful, but other than the explosive fury to which he is prone, we know almost nothing of his intimate life. Indeed, it is a bit jarring to learn that the name of his business is Duquet et Fils (which later becomes Duke and Sons) when we've heard nothing about his children or even if he was ever married.

A related problem is the story's stakes. Yes, we are told that "arrangements with the English and the Scots were still secret, complex, expensive, even dangerous," and we witness early on the confrontation between Duquet and the captured poacher, but none of this seems beyond what one would expect in any frontier tale, and with no investment in the main character, we have little incentive to care. When the stakes finally become clear, it feels too late, and the ending falls flat.

"Rough Deeds" passes muster on the strength of its historical dimension, but the mediocre characters and ho-hum stakes weigh it down considerably.


Also from the crime-fiction issue: "Brotherly Love," "Scenes of the Crime," "Happy Trails," "Slide to Unlock," "An Inch and a Half of Glory."

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