Review: Comanche by Brett Riley
Brett Riley’s gothic ghost western, Comanche, $25 from Imbrifex Books will delight readers of both westerns and horror, and thrill readers of the sub-genre, horror-westerns; fans of TV shows such as Grimm, The Outsider, and CW’s long-running smash Supernatural (itself a self-aware mashup of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and B movie fun). Riley’s prose sings, and Riley’s attuned ear for dialogue will have readers itching for a Netflix adaptation. Rooted by two New Orleans private investigators, Raymond Turner and Darrell LeBlanc, two ex-cops with big hearts and bigger appetites, plus Betsy McDowell, a down-to-earth psychic, the novel’s conflicts arise when the New Orleans trio clash with the Mayor of Commanche, and Turner’s brother-in-law. Aided, at times, by folklore expert Dr. Frost, and Commanche’s law enforcement, Riley’s Scooby gang is pitted against the ghost of the Piney Woods Kid, a despicable gunslinger who was shot and dismembered by locals in 1887, and who is now seeking revenge on his killer’s descendants.
Comanche’s mayor, like the mayor of Jaws’ Amity Island, eager for tourist dollars, does not trust the investigators to keep their work discrete. The big tourist draw, the Pow Wow, is approaching, and no one wants to scare off the dough. In this way, Riley’s novel is eerily prescient. Instead of a virus ruining the economy, it’s a ghost, and the descendants of murderers of The Piney Woods Kid do not care for strangers ordering them around. Stay put, they will not.
Riley’s prose crackles, and at times reminds of Stephen King or even Zane Grey. Riley employs a quick pace, with a strong emphasis on the lead protagonist’s character development, private eye Turner, who spends the novel struggling with early sobriety. His partner isn’t so much of a foodie as he is starving. All. The. Time. Riley relishes this and the prose drips with greasy spoons, whiskey, and beer. The action reaches a pinnacle in the third act, and Riley’s antagonist is fully unleashed, and the body count rises.
Some readers may wish Riley to be more expansive like King can be expansive, especially when it comes to the psychic Betsey McDowell, who spends most of the first act in the shadows. But Comanche isn’t Maximalist prose; it instead functions as a western, minimalist, fast-paced; each gunfight is just different enough from the last. The private investigator’s characterizations are also drawn from westerns, which are also found in detective yarns and cop shows and films: Turner’s newly sober widow, LeBlanc’s hulking tough guy who’s got his back, McDowell’s caregiving empathetic genius, very familiar territory for genre fans. This isn’t a detriment, it's an homage to pulp entertainment; Riley sprinkles enough Easter Eggs throughout for pop culture consumers. In the end, Comanche is more horror than detective yarn, as the Scooby gang figures out what’s going fairly early on. The fun is their trial and error attempts at ghostbusting, that and LeBlanc’s appetite.
Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Shore, Revolute, Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Crab Creek Review, & Third Wednesday, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.