I have never met Keith McCafferty; however, I gained a sense of the writer through his eight acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery novels. I subsequently read a small sample of his outdoor journalism with deep pleasure. When Casting into Mystery was released in the winter of 2020 I sent Keith a copy because he was the focus of a chapter on fly fishing mysteries. Keith’s enthusiastic support of my angling memoir has been deeply gratifying. He graciously introduced me to a number of literary fly anglers, including poet Keith Shein and angling Renaissance man Henry Hughes, who have been supportive of Casting. Keith and I have exchanged emails and talked on the phone. He is a natural raconteur of wide outdoor experience. This is an expanded and updated version of my observations on Keith’s mystery writing. I also offer snapshots of his excellent outdoor journalism.
The Bangtail Ghost is the most recent novel by my favourite fly fishing mystery writer, Keith McCafferty.
Montana’s Gravelly Range is put on high alert when paw prints and a single incriminating whisker are found at the scene of grisly violence which suggests that a woman has been mercilessly attacked and carried away. Tracks lead to a pile of gnawed bones and scattered remains. Yikes!
However much strife, conflict and violence occur in nature—what Tennyson memorably called ’red in tooth and claw’—man proves infinitely more ferocious, malevolent and dangerous in Keith’s eighth novel.
Keith—our Man in Montana—lives in Bozeman and he knows the state like the back of his hand not only by writing about it but by fishing and hunting it extensively. He began his writing career as a crime reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, where he met his wife, the award-winning journalist Gail Schontzler. Before turning his pen to mystery fiction he was an accomplished outdoor writer and outdoor skills editor for Field & Stream. He is a recipient of the prestigious Traver Award for angling literature and was a National Magazine Award finalist.
The outdoor journalism I have read of Keith’s compels me to place him squarely in the tradition of the best American outdoor sports journalism. To my mind, he is a link in the chain of legends beginning with the Pulitzer-winning Walter Wellesley ‘Red’ Smith and Cecil Whittaker ‘Ted’ Trueblood (who served as editor of Field & Stream from 1941 to 1982) and continuing through Ted Williams (not the Boston Red Sox legend but the outdoor and conservation journalist), James Babb and John Gierach. Likewise, he is a model for the most promising outdoor writers of a new generation including Noah Davis. In my estimation, it is time that a collection of Keith’s outdoor journalism be published. Admittedly I build my case on a small sample size but it is sufficient to confirm and verify the quality of his magazine writing.
The Philosopher’s Stone
is an account of one of three trips Keith made to British Columbia’s Thompson River, reputedly ‘the world’s most dangerous steelhead river’. Readers who take comfort in the stereotype of the fly angler as a briar pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed dandy on a pastoral English chalkstream had better prepare for a rude awakening. Keith presents steelheading not only as an obsession but as an addiction that threatens livelihood, family and health. It is serious stuff, even deadly.
Throughout the article, a blend of memory and celebration, Keith finds new and fresh ways of expressing the commonplace. A fly fisherman wades ‘into a pool where the river caught its breath before roaring away in a series of stunning rapids.’ (Italics mine). He conveys a powerful sense of steelheading on the Thompson as perilous as mountaineering or whitewater kayaking that touches ‘a measure of wildness missing for our lives.’ Always the conservationist, he mourns the tragic decline of the North American West Coast steelhead fishery caused by persistent manifestations of human hubris, ignorance and wilful stupidity.
Keith puts readers in the waders of steelhead fly anglers through direct and immediate sensory descriptions of a specific place. We are in the river alongside him as he casts repeatedly, until his arm and back ache, on the cusp of oblivion—his ‘heart . . . riding with the fly.’
’Fishing here is like an agnostic’s prayer,’ he writes, ‘like hoping there is a reason to hope.’ I know of no better description of the heroic futility of steeheading. After hundreds of casts during extreme weather, he confesses, ‘having done no more than shake the Thompson’s muscular hand.’
I will leave it to readers to discover whether Keith leaves the river for the last time victorious, ’turning lead skies and gunmetal water into Thompson gold.’
The End of the Road
is an account of permit fishing on the flats off Key West. When my thoughts turn to the southern-most tip of Florida, I think of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; Tom McGuane’s exuberant psychedelic satires Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama; and Guy de la Valdene’s auteur cult classic Tarpon, featuring Richard Brautigan, Jim Harrison and McGuane in addition to painter/writer Russell Chatham—a Wild Bunch of literary fly anglers if ever there was one. I also think of Keith’s fin-de-siècle essay about catching wily permit.
Key West has undergone a facelift in recent years, but Keith recalls it as ‘the end of the road in the way that the darkest bar is the end of the day . . . a place where shattered lives exhaust their final hours, where fortune tellers manufacture hope for the hopeless for a ten dollar bill, where men who can’t recall when it all went wrong lean in 2 a.m. shadows among six-toed cats that are scarcely more than shadows themselves.’
Turns out, fly fishing the flats for permit is not a whole lot better:
‘Key West marks the end of the road for the young in spirit and the heaviest of heart, it also is the last stop for the intrepid angler who can’t rest until he has taken all the world’s great gamefish. Long after most fishermen have boated their first tarpon, after the bonefish has made its last run and the Atlantic salmon is hand-tailed in the gloaming of the castle ruins, the permit dangles just out of reach, flashing its mirrored sides like a tropical jewel.’
Why are permit so difficult to catch? Because, ‘what they don’t spot as a phoney, they sense as counterfeit.’ In other words, good luck, chump. First we accompany Keith and a his oldest angling companion Mo as they warm up on tarpon, described as ’the most masochistic experience I’ve had holding a rod, not because tarpon are difficult to catch but because after the first few jumps it’s just your muscles against theirs, and then after a half hour or so it’s your heart against theirs . . . .’ Keith recognizes that, at bottom, fly fishing is about heart and nothing but heart.
Dead Man’s Fancy and the Kispiox Kiss
is an account of a steelheading trip Keith makes alone. ‘Everywhere you looked, the land was burnt,’ he writes, recalling “A Big Two-Hearted River’. He misses his son who could not accompany his father because his wife is due with their first baby. Memory is as smooth as the peppermint Schnapps and hot chocolate he sips—a tradition he shared with his father many years previously on Michigan trout streams—after setting up camp along an abandoned railroad line. A sense of time passing and loss are everywhere present.
His thoughts turn to Nick Adams, who ‘also had crossed through a burned-over country to get to a river . . . True, he was shell-shocked from the war and looking to nature for the restoration of his soul, while all I suffered from were the overloaded circuits of the era and a father’s loss as children leave home to start adult lives. But it was the same feeling of solitude and holding tight to yourself that makes brothers of all men who sleep alone in wild places, and with the coming of night I felt the absence of my son all the more.’
Keith loses some fish and he catches some fish. However, it is the aching closeness he feels for his father and his son—angling companions always and forever—that marks the trip as a success. ‘When I broke camp the next afternoon I was feeling considerably better about life.’
Three Elk Nights
is an account of backcountry elk hunt with his brother Kevin in the high country of the Crazy Mountains. Keith tells us a great deal about elk hunting, some of which challenges conventional wisdom. It is also a poignant story about brothers that reads like a short story rather than a hunting tale for the hook and bullet press. While readers might assume that elk hunting is about ‘caliber and high power glass,’ Keith argues it is actually about ‘climbing through snow wondering if you’re old enough to worry about heart attack, fourteen-hour nights, fingers too cold to do what you tell them to do and feet that freeze in the sleeping bag.’
After locating elk beds in the bowl of a distant basin, Keith feels ‘the old blood, that hunter’s pulse as strong under the pallor of modern skin as it was when the Paleo-Indians crossed from Asia to the Americas during the last ice age.’
He fires and the elk drops, eventually. Readers who have never hunted might find it difficult to accept that killing a wild animal possesses elements of ceremony and ritual because of the deep spirituality attached to it. ‘I squatted beside it and kissed it on the top of its head before Kevin walked up,’ Keith writes. ‘It is no small thing to take a life and I felt the regret I always do. The measure of it grows bigger each year I hunt and I know it is emotional, and not rational, for the elk lived wild and was killed cleanly and would feed many people.’
All ethical hunters are philosophers. Through hunting, Keith becomes an integral part of ‘the bloodstream of the mountain.’ What a lovely phrase.
‘I long ago concluded that the purpose of life was to grab as much of it as you could and pass it on to the next generation,’ Keith writes, ‘that living life meant giving life. But life is also present in death, which is something hunting makes you aware of. Jays and crows were already stripping the meat from the skeleton of the elk I’d shot. Porcupines would grind the bones. When the ground thawed, decomposition would return nutrients that spread from the elk to other living things and back into the soil. The tender sedges that formed the basis of the mountain’s food chain would unfurl, and the cycle would be complete. It wasn’t a justification for killing–for that I needed also to eat the meat–but taking part in nature’s chain of life had connected me with my hunting ancestors and brought me closer to the heartbeat of the earth.’
Since the publication of The Royal Wulff Murders in 2012, Keith has hooked the lip of my imagination. Cold Hearted River, his sixth Sean Stranahan mystery in as many years, is in my opinion his best.
The novel is a fictional murder mystery wrapped around a real-life literary mystery. Its title will tip off most readers because it is a pun on ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ Yes, the literary mystery involves none other than Ernest Hemingway, the writer who transformed fishing into a literary art form.
Keith shares some commonalities with the author known as ‘Papa’ which, at least for me, increase the novel’s interest quotient. Both writers are connected to Northern Michigan. Hemingway spent the summers of his youth there. The region provides the setting for some Nick Adams stories, including the masterful ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, as well as his first novel, the sophomoric satire Torrents of Spring.
Keith also spent the summers of his youth there, vacationing from Ohio with his family. Like Hemingway, it is where he learned to fly fish. He recalls one memorable summer in a Field & Stream article, ‘Wishing Tree: Fly Fishing Michigan’s Au Sable River,’ a reminiscence of the state’s Holy Water. Some of his personal story, which took place when he was twenty and worked on stream restoration, is given fictional shape in Cold Hearted River.
The connection between Keith and Hemingway, however, runs deeper. Keith knew the famous writer’s oldest son Jack Hemingway (a better angler than his father) for more than three decades when they were both contributing editors for Field & Stream. In his preface to Cold Hearted River, Keith recalls a ‘blustery November day’ when the two were steelheading on a section of the Thompson River known as the Graveyard. His colleague recounted the story of his famous father’s steamer trunk being lost or stolen in 1940, en route from Key West, Florida, to Ketchum, Idaho.
The trunk reputedly contained all of the author’s fly fishing gear, including bamboo rods and reels from England’s House of Hardy—and maybe, just maybe—an unpublished manuscript. (Hemingway’s only surviving fly rod, a Hardy ‘Fairy’ model, is on permanent display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing.) Of course, it is well known that in 1921 Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, lost a bag containing the manuscript and all the carbon copies of his first novel on a Parisian train.
Hemingway never fly fished after his fly gear was stolen. I believe it is possible to trace the beginning of Hemingway’s creative decline to when he gave up fly fishing and, instead, pursued celebrity through salt-water antics.
Keith confides that he had no intention of doing anything creatively with the tale of the missing trunk until Gail persuaded him to set a novel in northwestern Wyoming, where Hemingway spent five summers and autumns late in his life fishing, hunting and writing. This backstory sets up a compelling mystery. Keith builds a fictional mystery on the foundation of a literary mystery. A reader can never be sure where fact ends and fiction begins.
Keith’s assessment of Hemingway, which he expresses through a character in the novel—a retired English professor who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to ‘Papa’—is perspicacious. I agree with his observations:
Hemingway the person is among the most misunderstood, vilified, and yet the most celebrated Americans of his generation, and I would venture among the most iconic figures of the twentieth century.
Keith shrewdly puts his finger on the paradox that was very much the man. (Interestingly, his evaluation applies equally to another giant in twentieth century literature who, like Hemingway, was an obsessive angler. I am talking about Ted Hughes, the English poet who was married to Sylvia Plath when she, infamously, committed suicide.)
Keith acknowledges the dichotomy at the heart of Hemingway’s public persona. He sketches a portrait of a complicated man who was a complex artist—these character traits are not the same, nor are they interchangeable—who became a grotesque poster boy for American machismo:
He defined the American male, was labeled a misogynist, yet his relationships were with strong women and he championed their accomplishments. He could be shy behind his glasses, or generous and instructive. A bully and a bore, but by and large his friends forgave him his transgressions, because most of the time he was simply the best company you would ever find. His intelligence and enthusiasm were piercing lights to which people couldn’t help but gravitate.
I agree with Keith that Hemingway was a pathologically shy man who hide behind a braggadiocio facade. He questions the simplistic explanation of Hemingway’s mood swings as bipolar disorder. He suggests–rightly, I believe–that the paranoia and delusions of grandeur that dogged the writer to the grave were symptoms of schizophrenia, and that the brain trauma he suffered in an airplane crash in Africa caused psychological damage that led to diminished creativity.
Keith has transformed his home in Montana into a major character in his mysteries, along with the recreational sport itself. In The Royal Wulff Murders we learn Sean is an ex-private eye who moved to Montana from New England to purchase a new lease on life. He unwittingly becomes involved in murder after a good ol’ boy fishing guide reels in the corpse on the Madison, a legendary trout river. As events unfold Sean crosses paths with Velvet LaFayette, a Southern belle who pays the bills as a nightclub singer, and Martha Ettinger who emits a slow, amorous burn beneath her sheriff’s badge.
Keith proved himself an accomplished fiction writer right out of the gate. The setting for his mysteries was well-defined and his characters were not only fleshed out, they demonstrated potential for growth, like a good investment portfolio. Sean had sufficient emotional depth and intellectual breadth to carry a series. The Royal Wulff Murders brims with enough suspense and fly fishing lore to lure anglers and mystery fans alike—which is maintained throughout the series.
By his sophomore release, The Gray Ghost Murders, Keith had become my go-to fly fishing mystery writer—the literary equivalent of a pheasant-tail nymph or Woolly Bugger. The novel is held together by a pair of mystery threads as artfully tied as a Victorian salmon fly.
Keith is not one to back away from controversy, which should be of interest to fly anglers specifically and to outdoor enthusiasts generally. In The Royal Wulff Murders he introduces readers to the urgent danger of invasive species to trout streams throughout the West—which, by the way, extends to game fisheries across North America. In Dead Man’s Fancy he examines the politics of reintroducing wolves in the West. He sets A Death in Paradise, his seventh instalment in the series, in Montana’s Smith River Canyon. Referred to as ‘America’s Sistine Chapel’ because of its grandeur and beauty, environmental groups have listed it as the country’s fourth most endangered watershed due to threats from copper mining in its headwaters.
Admittedly, the extent to which Keith devotes himself to fly fishing varies from novel to novel. As a literary fly angler I prefer the novels in which the recreational sport is most prominent. I realize he–not to mention his publisher–wants to reach as wide an audience as possible, including female mystery aficionados who don’t give a cul de canard about the arcane intricacies of fur and feather. However, I note that female fly anglers constitute the fastest growing fly angling demographic in America, which bodes well for maintaining a certain level of fly angling in the Sean Stranahan series. Two things remain certain: no mystery writer knows more about fly fishing, or writes more eloquently about the sport, than Keith McCafferty.
I would love to travel to Montana to meet Keith, share stories over a dram of malt whisky or a glass of luscious Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. Even better, I would love to spend a few hours with him on one of his favourite trout streams. But, alas, it is unlikely we will meet, especially as the world stumbles under the heavy burden of a deadly pandemic. Still I have his mysteries and sincerely hope that someday I will have a collection of his outdoor journalism so that I might keep in touch with Our Man in Montana.