The historical novel "Deep Creek," based on a real-life 1887 massacre of Chinese miners in Hells Canyon on the Snake River, pits a principled judge against upstanding citizens who happen to be murderers. Author Dana Hand is a pen name for Princeton professor emeritus Will Howarth and Pulitzer Prize finalist Anne Matthews.
by Dana Hand
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 308 pp., $25
Judge Joe Vincent knows all about political capital; he knows he’ll soon have zero if he prosecutes the gang of men who massacred nearly three dozen Chinese gold miners on the banks of the Snake River.
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After all, those Chinese were heathens, soulless; their alleged killers upstanding citizens. Why make trouble for the town of Lewiston when it’s 1887 and Idaho Territory is on the verge of statehood?
At times in the historical thriller “Deep Creek,” it’s tough to tell who must overcome the harshest ostracism to crack the case: Lee Loi, a private investigator whose Chinese heritage closes doors despite his Yale diploma; Grace Sundown, an alluring half-native mountain guide with a mysterious past; or Vincent, the stubborn, maverick small-town judge no longer willing to heed society’s politics and prejudices.
It’s this unlikely trio that sets off on horseback in pursuit of justice. Their efforts to outwit a series of coldblooded villains provides readers the chance to walk in the footprints of those typically relegated to the margins of history, overshadowed by cowboys, generals and tycoons. We see how America, then as now, struggled with its diversity — of heritage, of faith, of class and of morals. We watch Vincent, a man torn between a comfortable life and his gut convictions, attempt to rectify a lifetime of wrong turns by setting a few wrongs right.
“Deep Creek” is inspired by actual events and people, including the 1887 murders of Chinese miners in Hells Canyon along the Snake, the middle-aged judge who pursued the killers and the bogus race-murder trial that followed.
Its authors (Princeton professor emeritus and former National Geographic Society writer Will Howarth and Pulitzer Prize finalist Anne Matthews, writing under the pen name Dana Hand) fill in the gaps with a compelling romance, fascinating context and well-crafted characters. Fans of Northwest history, Westerns and mysteries will find much to like in this tale.