Reviewed by John Orr
Something's rotten in the states of American heartland, and few books I've seen explore and explain that putresence with more humor, perspicacity and sincerity than the Mad Dog and Englishman series by novelist J.M. Hayes.
His little murder mysteries -- each taking place in just one day in the fictional county of Benteen, Kansas -- are at least as amusing as Mark Twain and very nearly as gothic as William Faulkner.
And they have plenty to say about what is going on in the United States. As Hayes puts it in the afterword for this book, "there's nothing the matter with Kansas that isn't duplicated in our nation at large.''
Of course, not every state's board of education served as the locus for groups that wanted to force schools to teach the intelligent design theory of the origin of life.
"Broken Heartland,'' Hayes' latest Mad Dog and Englishman novel, takes place on an election day that Sheriff English thinks will remove him from office. His opponent, Lieutenant Greer, is a tall, handsome war hero and a conservative Christian who has fought a dirty but well-funded campaign.
Greer and Englishman were supposed to have a last-minute debate on election day -- Greer planned to ask the sheriff why he didn't have a copy of the Ten Commandments hanging in his office -- but earlier that morning, in the dark, one of Englishman's deputies, Wynn (Some, Lose-Some) had been involved in a high-speed chase that ended with the deputy crashing into a school bus full of kids.
So instead, Greer wants to know "why Deputy Wynn was conducting a high-speed pre-dawn pursuit with his lights off.''
English wonders about that, too, and wonders why a school bus was on the streets in the dark way before school, and why the only survivor from the car that Wynn had been chasing before the bus got in the way had mentioned Pastor Goodfellow, an important supporter of Greer.
The debate is cut short when Greer says "Isn't it true that both your daughters have had abortions?" That's when the fist fight breaks out.
Meanwhile, the daughters -- who are both called Heather but are known as One of Two and Two of Two -- are on their separate ways back to Benteen County from their colleges. Also coming home is Englishman's older brother, Mad Dog, who'd been on a spirit quest. All three had felt they needed to get home, and in the case of the daughters, they both felt their father's life was at stake.
Mad Dog -- who has identified with the tiny portion of his blood that is American Indian and fancies himself a Cheyenne shaman -- finds a creepy anti-abortion sign on his lawn that mentions the Heathers. He also finds the word "PAGAN" painted on his front door in squirrel blood, and that anti-freeze had been poured in the water tub used by his wolf-hybrid, Hailey.
The mysteries deepen when it is learned that the school bus had been stolen, and that the one teen found dead in the early morning chase and crash had apparently been kidnapped by whoever was driving the car that Wynn-Some had been pursuing.
With Wynn unconscious and his other two deputies off duty for dire reasons, Sheriff English deputizes one of the Heathers -- arming her only with a can of mace and a pair of handcuffs -- and gets help without knowing about it from the other Heather, Mad Dog and from Wynn-Some's father. Before long English's rag-tag crew -- mostly family members -- are scattered around Benteen County with dangers piling up everywhere, including a high-school massacre and a lab running Nazi-like medical studies.
Who knew there was so much going on in Kansas?
Yet we buy into most of it because it all echoes of our own experiences and stories we've read in the newspapers. And we like Hayes' cast. Sheriff English, aching from the loss of his wife Judy -- who did not survive the illness she had in the previous book, "Plains Crazy" -- still gets out there every day and does his job with a steady work ethic and competence. Mad Dog is a wonderful character who is completely sincere in his adoption of the best qualities of Cheyenne culture who does all he can to be as aware of the spirit world as he is of the physical world.
And the two Heathers -- one the child of English and Judy, the other adopted -- are both wonderful young women, beautiful, practical and full of courage.
Hayes gets a lot done in a few pages, piling on plot twists, rapier stabs at political conventions and enough irony to change magnetic fields in a book that is a pleasure to read from beginning to end.