The cover of “High White Sun”, the latest from novelist J. Todd Scott, is a complexity of storylines, much like the riveting narration within. I knew I had to read this book from the moment I saw the cover promoted on Twitter.
The bold white of the title catches you first, but it’s the hint of the possible danger given off by the rider in the foreground as the eye is drawn forever into the distant vanishing point that seals the deal. You’re at once caught wondering where the story is heading.
Scott is a federal law enforcement officer turned novelist, with his debut novel, “The Far Empty”, receiving lots of positive attention. The modern western is set in the Texas badlands, south of Fort Stockton in the area of Big Bend. “The Far Empty” introduced readers to young sheriff’s deputy Chris Cherry, a high school football star returned to his hometown.
In “High White Sun”, Chris has come into his own as a newly minted sheriff in his own right, tasked with rebuilding a department that had rotted from the inside. Author Scott does a brilliant job weaving the story from the start. A dreamlike memory sequence pulls the reader in, but you slowly realize that’s just part of the mystery.
I was impressed with the way Scott moved several story threads forward. Characters that seem part of one web actually have their own complex roles to play. An older law man in mourning tries to avoid finding the bottom of the bottle. A young female deputy, rightly named America, tries to sort out her mixed allegiances while keeping the lid on powerful secrets. Sheriff Cherry faces his own fears at home and significant challenges in moving his department forward.
At the heart of “High White Sun” is a gang of white supremacists, members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, who’ve come to Big Bend County for their own ends. What that is isn’t exactly clear at the start, but once they murder a local river guide, readers know the evil at work in their hearts.
Good versus evil along the Texas badlands
The badlands of Texas, sparse and endless, play a role as well in “High White Sun”. As evidenced by the cover, distance plays a major role in the storyline, both physical and emotional. An early wind motif, both blowing in the open and harnessed by turbines, adds a lyrical sense to the story, which Scott is careful not to burden the reader with. He gives just a hint of flourish, with descriptions of the sun, the horizon and the dust putting the reader in place for the story to follow.
Scott does an excellent job leading storylines together for the first 100-plus pages. Once the challenges become clear, as Sheriff Cherry and his deputies realize the danger at present, the reader can’t help but glide along well written scenes and chapters packed with action. The expected complications arise, as multi-jurisdictional interests clash, but Scott doesn’t whiff here. Instead, pulling on his experience as a DEA agent, he brings real emotions to life while laying out the difficulty local deputies endure when trying to combat drug cartels and hardened criminals along the Mexican border.
J. Todd Scott has built a place for himself in the noir genre by constructing a world in Big Bend County full of complicated characters. His deft use of place gives what could be just another “cop novel” a deeper sense of meaning. As with the best of southern and Appalachian literature, the land and its significance to the characters is a driving force that often goes unspoken.