The arrival of a highly dysfunctional Hollywood film crew spells trouble in Smith’s stellar third novel featuring laconic upstate New York farmer Virgil Cain (after 2012’s Crow’s Landing). The crew plan to shoot a major motion picture, Frontier Woman, based on a bestseller hailed as “the Eat, Pray, Love of the nineteenth century.”
All involved, from producers Sam Sawchuck and Levi Brown to director Robb Fetterman, have hidden agendas, except movie actress Olivia Burns, who plays the lead, and the child in the role of her daughter. When Brown and Fetterman want to hire Virgil’s team of Percherons, Bob and Nelly, for the picture, Virgil is happy to oblige. The film’s precarious financing opens the door for another player, casino bigwig Ronnie Red Hawk.
The suspicious death of one of the principals brings in Virgil’s lover, homicide cop Claire Marchand. Wonderfully wrought characters, delicious wit, and droll storytelling make this a delightful romp.
... A new book by Brad Smith allows me to fill in another sizable gap in my Canadian crime coverage. His laconic, dry-humored brand of country noir has always appealed, but somehow never found its way into this space until now, with Shoot the Dog (Scribner, 311 pp; $26) the third outing featuring his hardscrabble antihero Virgil Cain. This time around he’s content to bale hay and keep an eye on his horses when a film production team comes calling, and for the cool price of $500 a day, Virgil is helping out on the set of Frontier Woman.
The setup allows for all-too-familiar tropes – encroaching paparazzi, city/country clashes, a young starlet with too much time on her hands and a penchant for trouble – where all paths lead to a not-so-shocking murder. Inevitable, too, that Virgil, along with his sometime federal agent love interest Claire, get mixed up in trying to find the culprit, as Frontier Woman‘s future is further imperiled.
But Smith is too smart to wallow too deeply in tropes, saving the day with lived-in descriptions of the Upstate New York terrain Virgil knows best, Claire’s intrepid investigative acumen (and her ability to sass Virgil around when necessary), some necessary (but humourous) pokes at the film industry’s grand ability to mess things up, and a deep love of all things rural. Virgil, too, remains an appealing cipher, one ready for another bout of criminal conflicts – but perhaps not for just $500 a day.
Nothing beats the jolt of anticipation that comes with spying a new title from one of your favourite authors. I'll admit I did a happy dance when I spotted the latest novel from Brad Smith and the smile stayed on my face until I'd read all 309 pages of it.
Shoot the Dog is the third mystery in Smith's series featuring baseball player turned farmer Virgil Cain. He's the kind of guy who needs help using a cellphone, but can repair the runner on his plow solo after it breaks offin the field. Trouble always comes calling, but that's OK: Virgil can handle it.
This time out, he gets caught up in the investigation surrounding the death of a movie star. The crew of Frontier Woman, a film based on a novel described as "the Eat, Pray, Love of the nineteenth century," has invaded Virgil's rural corner of upstate New York. And while he doesn't think much of the two Hollywood types who offer him $500 a day for the use of his two Percheron horses, Virgil needs the cash for his tax bill.
His lady friend, Claire Marchand, is about as unimpressed with the big shots as Virgil is, but is pulled into their dysfunctional orbit when the movie's headliner is killed. (Long story short, Claire is a police detective who met Virgil back when he was arrested for murder. That's the tale that started the series in Red Means Run.) Then there's Ronnie Red Hawk, a quasi-native who ponies up $6 million for a producer credit on the movie; the director, his wife and a muscle-bound money man; Kari Karson, a Lindsay Lohan type looking for a way back to the top; and assorted other players. I'll admit I was a tad worried when Smith kept adding new faces to the mix.
But stick with it: he knows what he's doing and all the pieces come together with nary a join to be seen. That's an allusion to one of Smith's other talents. When he's not writing, Smith still practises the art of carpentry. He's been a bartender, a teacher (apparently, the school board wasn't too thorough in checking out that resume), a signalman on the railway and more.
All that life experience can be found in the pages of his books. Smith has an Elmore Leonard-esque ability to create smart, engaging dialogue that rings true. Add in quirky characters that manage to stay on this side of believable and he's got a recipe that hooks readers from the get-go and carries them along to the finish. And I haven't even mentioned Virgil's dry wit. Juxtaposing that quiet selfconfidence and his carefully chosen words against the ego-boosting chatter of the Hollywood crowd provides plenty of satire without taking away from the story at hand.
While there are some quibbles here and there (what's with the infantile director and his mothering wife?), readers looking for a spirited story with plenty of personality should pick up Shoot the Dog.
Virgil Cain lives as far away from Hollywood as geographically possible. A farmer in upstate New York, Virgil is just hoping to manage his small farm, take care of the two Percheron horses he’s somehow inherited, and keep up a relationship with his girlfriend, Claire, who also happens to be a police officer. Virgil’s immediate problem is coming up with the cash to pay his taxes. A film crew shows up in town and Virgil finds a way to make some easy money by lending his horses to the production as local color. When the leading lady turns up dead, Virgil finds himself in a real life murder mystery.
Shoot the Dog is Brad Smith’s third novel featuring Virgil & Co. following Red Means Run and Crow’s Landing. The series has all the ingredients of one that could prove to be quite addictive. Virgil is down to earth, no nonsense, and often the smartest person in the room, which makes him all the more likable in Shoot the Dog where the supporting cast of characters ranges from annoying to unlikable. Then again, they’re from Hollywood.
Producer Sam Sawchuck arrives with her team in Virgil territory, all set to begin filming Frontier Woman based on a best selling novel and set to star Olivia Burns. (Claire describes the novel to Virgil as the Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love set in another time and place. That comparison could stretch to the leading lady since Olivia begins to sound like a fictional Julia Roberts, a beautiful superstar who wears her celebrity lightly.)
Who would want to kill Olivia? For someone so rich, famous, and gorgeous, she treats everyone with kindness and respect. And her involvement in Frontier Woman is the only reason United States Network agreed to bankroll the production. Yet once her body is discovered, the list of suspects includes nearly everyone working on the set.
With Olivia gone, USN pulls out and Sam, desperate to keep the project alive, finds a financial angel in Ronnie Red Hawk, who has capitalized on the drop of Native American blood in his system to build a hotel and casino empire. Never one to take a back seat, Ronnie soon elevates his position to executive producer and casting director, bringing in another actress, Kari Karson (think Lindsay Lohan), to take over Olivia’s role. Kari shows up with her BFF, Nicole, soon found dead of a drug overdose in Ronnie’s hotel. Meanwhile, the other producer, Levi, continues to dodge a hit man sent by drug dealers.
Sam replaced the original director, someone with a proven track record, with her blundering husband, Robb, hoping Frontier Woman will establish him as a player. Instead, the assistant director, Tommy, is forced to babysit Robb whose creative judgment is impeded by the fact that he hasn’t read the book. “I’m not really sure what this scene is about,” Robb says in one scene. His wife, Sam, replies: “Country girl comes to school in town, is mocked by the locals. Think Mean Girls in long dresses and bonnets.”
The book’s title comes from a film industry expression for rescuing a production that’s in trouble by shooting a dog to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Apparently Sam Peckinpah coined the phrase after he resorted to extreme measures when directing a TV show in the 1950s.
Who can blame Virgil for wondering how he managed to get tangled up in this real life farce?
I admit to a bias. Being from upstate New York, it’s fun to read a mystery in a country location where the big city-big shots have a lot to learn from ordinary people. Virgil is one of those sharp locals and we look forward to learning from him for a long time.
Another Hollywood production ventures into the sticks, with results that are predictably droll, dry and homicidal.
Now that she’s cut director Peter Dunmore out of Frontier Woman, “the Eat, Pray, Love of the nineteenth century,” just as it’s about to begin shooting in Woodstock, N.Y., scheming producer Sam Sawchuk is ready to install her husband and producing partner, gutless rookie Robb Fetterman, in his place. Little does Sam know she’s about to be outmaneuvered by two new colleagues even sharper than she is. When she approaches suspiciously red-haired Indian casino owner Ronnie Red Hawk for the last $6 million she needs to shoot the picture, he responds by writing a check and then grabbing the reins from Sam’s Big Deal Productions. Virgil Cain, the Woodstock farmer last seen under arrest for murder in Red Means Run (2012), demonstrates a quieter, funnier mode of resistance once he and a pair of Percherons he’s nursing back to health are hired for some background shots.
Virgil befriends all the wrong people, from veteran second-unit director Tommy Alamosa to 10-year-old actress Georgia Lee Thompson, and gets under the skin of self-important types like Robb and producer Levi Brown. The death of leading lady Olivia Burns, well-liked but scarcely mourned by the hard-bitten crew of Frontier Woman, sets the stage for Ronnie to replace her with starlet Kari Karson, who’s better known for her tabloid exploits than her acting chops. There’ll be more violent deaths, but the criminal byplay is less engaging than the puncturing of the Hollywood blowhards by the country bumpkins who run rings around them.
Smith’s slyly entertaining satire makes it easy to overlook the perfunctory, forgettable mystery.