I was delighted when I started reading this and discovered that it takes place on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. I actually rode through there during my motorcycle trip a couple of years ago, as well as the Pine Ridge reservation, which was also mentioned, so that fact really brought the story to life for me.
I don’t know if I can really classify this as a thriller; it’s more of a crime fiction story though there were undoubtedly some thrilling elements to it. But I decided to chat about it for Thriller Thursday nonetheless as I think it would appeal to those who enjoy mysteries, thrillers, or crime fiction.
So we follow Virgil Wounded Horse, a Lakota man living on the Rosebud Reservation who is sort of a vigilante. Others call him “a hired thug.” When the justice system fails, people hire tough-guy Virgil, who ends up delivering his own kind of punishment. When the government decides not to prosecute or pursue those committing rape, assault, or even murder on Indigenous, you call Virgil.
The story opens with Virgil delivering some “special justice” to a rogue teacher who’s sexually assaulted one of his young students. Because of his “chosen career,” Virgil’s kind of an outsider in the community, and people tend to steer clear of him….unless they need his services. He’s also a reformed alcoholic and is trying to turn his life around.
The latest job that he’s hired for — by his ex’s father, nonetheless — is quite a bit different than his previous assignments. The man has requested that Virgil find out who’s bringing heroin into the Reservation and make them stop — any way he can.
It appears that both men know the culprit — someone who used to bully Virgil — so he doesn’t hesitate in taking the case. The task then becomes personal when his beloved teenaged nephew, who is Virgil’s charge, overdoes on heroin and nearly dies, all of which motivates Virgil even more to get to the bottom of it.
But as Virgil soon discovers, things are a lot more complicated than he had thought and much more dangerous. Things really get interesting when he’s pretty much forced to collaborate with the Feds, which may or may not go according to plan and seriously endanger certain lives in the process, with murder being a strong possibility.
This was quite a compelling character-driven story as we got to delve into Virgil’s mind and had firsthand insight into his motivations. Virgil is such a riveting character with so many layers and vulnerabilities and conflicting motivations, and it’s apparent that he’s still trying to figure out his place in the world. There’s a lot more to him than being merely a vigilante for hire. In fact, all of the characters in this book are richly developed, complex, and engaging.
It was also a riveting, sometimes gritty look at what life is like on the Reservation. I also appreciated the discussion around Native-traditions, ceremonies, and teachings that Virgil has come to reject over the years.
But apart from that, there’s also a serious conversation around the crucial issues of drug abuse, economic poverty, and horrendous injustices aimed at Indigenous people, which was genuinely heartbreaking to read.
The lack of government involvement around serious crimes was incredibly eye-opening, especially since, by federal law, tribal police couldn’t prosecute any federal crimes that happen on the Reservation. In this way, the legal system is mostly non-existent, so criminals walk away, and you have to turn to a man like Virgil to obtain justice.
This novel worked for me on so many levels. I loved learning about the culture, and the author really brought the characters and the setting to life for me. This extremely well-written novel was touching, endearing, humorous in place, shocking, heart-breaking, and heart-mending. It touched on so many serious issues that affect Indigenous people today, and in so doing, I feel that it provides valuable insight into these issues.
Additionally, the author gives us a compelling, heart-in-your-throat mystery to solve as Virgil enters deep into a web of corruption, deception, and danger and quickly finds himself in way over his head.
It was difficult for me to leave Virgil as I finished this action-packed book as I grew quite attached to this character. I hope the author gives us more books that follow this character as I’d love to see Virgil Wounded Horse once again.