Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli WeidenWinter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Ecco on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

Winter Counts is a marvel. It’s a thriller with a beating heart and jagged teeth. This book is a brilliant meditation on power and violence, and a testament to just how much a crime novel can achieve. Weiden is a powerful new voice. I couldn’t put it down.”  —Tommy Orange, author of There There
A Recommended Read from:
Buzzfeed * Electric Literature * Lit Hub * Shondaland * Publishers Weekly

A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 
Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.
They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.
Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

My Review:

Winter Counts sits on that uncomfortably sharp knife-edge between thriller and mystery. And when that knife edge cuts, the majority of the story feels like it falls on the thriller side of the equation. And what a thriller it is.

The reader, following in the footsteps of Virgil Wounded Horse, isn’t looking for merely whodunnit. For one thing, Virgil thinks that he already knows. But what he’s really in the middle of is more of a “something rotten in the state of Denmark” situation, with the Rosebud Indian Reservation standing in for Hamlet’s Denmark.

And the something that’s rotten? That lives up to another cliche, the one about the fish rotting from the head down. A head that is more than savvy enough to keep Virgil just distracted enough not to turn his eyes in its direction.

Virgil is the reservation’s enforcer, an unofficial position that exists in a yawning chasm, the howling abyss between the misdemeanor level of crimes that the Tribal Police are legally permitted to investigate and the felonies that the U.S. Federal Agencies are willing to take on. Serious crimes like rape, child abuse and assault all drown in that huge gap. Virgil’s position – and it really does exist on many reservations – arose so that people on the reservation could get some kind of justice. That the guilty would pay something for their crimes, even if the law never went after them.

Because it doesn’t. (That the rape of women on reservation land inevitably falls into this gap is one of the many, many, too many hills that the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has died on. A fact that is disgusting on so many different axes that I can’t even. Period.)

Back to the story.

Considering what Virgil does, it is not illogical for Tribal Councilman Ben Short Bear to contact Virgil about someone running heroin on tribal lands. But’s it’s not completely logical, either. Not just because Ben already knows who the drug dealer is, but because he paints this as a more than big enough crime to actually get the Feds off their asses to investigate. Major drug busts make both cops’ and prosecutors’ careers, and this one seems to be plenty big enough. Something about this one smells fishy, fishy enough that Virgil wants to think about it for a few days.

Then his nephew, Nathan, the teenage boy that Virgil is raising, barely survives a heroin overdose. Virgil is suddenly all in on a case he wasn’t sure about getting involved in – and isn’t that a huge coincidence? Nathan has had some issues, but up until this point drugs have not been one of them. A circumstance that should have seemed very fishy to Virgil, but he’s too emotionally compromised in this case to be thinking clearly.

As the criminal intended.

Virgil has to juggle this case he didn’t want, an on-again, off-again romance that he isn’t sure needs to be on again, and his care for a boy who is suddenly up to his neck in more trouble than either of them can handle.

Even the Feds are involved, with Virgil and Nathan playing “piggy-in-the-middle” in a tug of war between feuding drug gangs, rival jurisdictions and that rotten fish at the top of the food chain, playing all the ends against Virgil and Nathan in the middle.

Escape Rating A: It felt like Winter Counts was a thriller because of the way that the story works. The reader, and Virgil, both believe that they know what the crime is at the very beginning. It’s only as Virgil investigates that the picture begins to shift and the reader realizes just how badly he – and everyone around him – have been deceived.

I knew who the real villain was from the very beginning. I just didn’t know exactly what his villainy consisted of – or how or if Virgil was going to expose that villainy. And it was the two-steps forward, one-step back nature of that search and that exposure that kept me going through the story.

I felt compelled to know – even as the picture kept getting darker and murkier. As much as I had figured out the who, I was nowhere near sure about all the tendrils of the how and the why was still stunning in the depths to which it reached, as well as the amount of collateral damage it piled up.

Virgil begins this story as a man who may be doing a job, but is mostly looking for a bit of his own brand of justice against the men who, once upon a time, were the biggest bullies in a high school that looked down upon him as not being fully Lakota. He only gets fully invested when Nathan gets swept into the case, as intended by the crook he doesn’t even realize he’s pursuing.

In order to both solve the case and save his nephew – and himself – he has to move forward. He has to look for healing for his old resentments and reconcile himself to the wounds that can neither be healed nor avenged.

Considering that Virgil is the adult and Nathan the teenager, there’s a big part of this story that is about both of them growing up and facing the future. In order to be prepared for the next time that evil turns its gaze upon them. As Winter Counts is purported to be the opening book in a new series, I expect that will be sooner than Virgil would like, but not nearly fast enough for readers, like this one, who want more.

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