Ian Weir’s third novel is an epic, gun-slinging western that nimbly stretches 174 years from a blood feud in antebellum North Carolina to Hell’s Gate and the Cariboo Gold Rush of the Fraser River Valley in the B.C. interior. The horsepower that fuels the novel is the eponymous protagonist’s relentless pursuit of his younger half-brother – the outlaw Elijah “Lige” Dillashay.
Strother “had come into the world as easily as any first-born child might do.” The club-footed Lige, by contrast, “had come truculent and terrible, with such violence that his Mama was never fully to recover.” Strother (a.k.a. Old Lem, a.k.a. Old Cadaver) is a gentle giant of a man with a moral compass straight and true –and deadly aim. Lige (a.k.a. the Reverend Jacob Jacobson, a.k.a. the Reverend Mann from Decatur) is dark, brooding, feral, unbound, and smells of whiskey.
The brothers experience horrific loss, not least at the hands of Drusilla Smoak, a wizened crone rumoured to be a witch. Drusilla, a member of the cursed Collard clan, steadfastly midwifed Lige into the world, thus saving mother and child. When Jacob Dillashay fails to compensate her for her services, she warns him to think again. He tells her to get off his land. The drama of the confrontation is brilliant: “Drusilla Smoak took his measure. ‘I’ll come back,’ she said, ‘another day. When I do, I’ll name my own gift. And you’ll owe it.’” Drusilla collects, with compound interest.
A secondary but no less exciting narrative follows the relationship of Tom Skiffings (a.k.a. Gimp Tom, a.k.a. Tyree) and his older sister, Billie Skiffings (a.k.a. Arabella Skye, a.k.a. Missus Reverend Jacobson, a.k.a. Missus Reverend Mann). The reader encounters them 16 years after eight fateful days in their youth. During that earlier, formative period, the siblings had holed up in their uncle’s cabin with Lige and two other fugitives.
The novel is framed by a “Purcellian scholar” named Professor Brookmire. The narrative takes the form of a series of written accounts given to Brookmire in the present by a mysterious old woman. It incorporates footnotes pointing to the potential unreliability of the five narrative voices, one of which appears to be the mysterious old woman herself. There is a grim and palpable tension in several set-piece confrontations that will keep readers riveted; the whole thing recalls Patrick deWitt’s popular neo-western The Sisters Brothers by way of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.
The Death and Life of Strother Purcell channels the spirit of the dime novel, America’s first profitable type of mass literature. Weir leavens the action with large dollops of humour, as when the hack journalist Barrington Weaver – one of the book’s narrators – describes his drinking companions: “These were fellow scribblers … which is to say a clutch of dipsomaniac lying bastards who would never twist a fact when they could invent one outright, bless their hearts.” Or, as the mysterious old woman informs Brookmire about the story she is passing along, “[It’s] true. All of it. Every damned word, more or less, except for the bits that maybe aren’t. But the rest you can take to the godalmighty bank.”