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Scott Phillips

Dennis McMillan Publications

US Hardcover Signed/Limited First Edition


Publication Date: 01-15-2004

308 Pages; Price $125.00



Scott Phillips

Ballantine Books

US Hardcover Trade Edition

ISBN: 0-345-46100-22

Publication Date: 02-03-2004

304 pages; $23.95


Date Reviewed: 02-24-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction, Mystery

Crime fiction can encompass a wide variety of writing, from period pieces like 'The Alienist' to hyper-modern science fiction like 'Altered Carbon'. Literature that revolves around the outlaw acts of humans who are mercilessly shoved into a society that may or may not accommodate their needs enables writers to dissect the human heart with surgical skill and scientific clarity. Usually, the crimes are upfront and obvious. A man is killed, a woman is robbed, a child is missing. But the crimes that center a piece of fiction need not announce themselves with newspaper-like headlines. Scott Phillips lets the crimes that underscore his western novel 'Cottonwood' rise from the murky sediment and sentiments that surround the settlers in the American west shortly after the Civil War. The feel of the novel is organic. Crime grows in the rotten, hidden corners of unwatched, unnoticed places of the sprawling American frontier.

Bill Ogden is pretty comfortable in the post-Civil War world of the small Kansas town of Cottonwood. His marriage is a sham, but it's a sham he can live with. He's homesteading a farm, but he's not working it himself. He lets hired help do so while he works in town at the saloon he built. While his wife cheats on him with the hired help, he helps himself to the women of the town. Everything is loose in Cottonwood. Katie Bender runs a boarding house outside of town while telling fortunes in town, and a rich new arrival from Chicago, Marc Leval, is able to bowl the small population over with his prediction of huge growth from a pending cattle trail. But few are what they seem, and as the years stretch on, revelations of evil and fraud change the lives of Bill and those around him.

Phillips' new novel offers a glimpse at the great grandfather of a nasty figure from his previous novel, 'The Walkaway'. Bill Ogden is nothing if not salacious and self-confident. He's a genial, outgoing voice that allows Phillips to take readers on a tour of the West they never were allowed to imagine. This is a West of dark urges written with a nice light touch. Ogden is an amateur photographer and student of the classics. Phillips is able to get a lot of fascinating ideas, events and glimpses of past technologies into the novel without ever seeming like he's quoting from an encyclopedia. There's a wealth of entertaining information for the reader to enjoy in 'Cottonwood'.

There's also a wealth of salacious sex. Ogden has a voracious appetite that's unrestrained on these wild frontiers. Phillips shows a lot of skill in his writing about sex. He never gets overly sentimental or overly surgical. There's a very nice matter-of-fact feeling that makes Ogden's adventures entertaining, funny and humanly informative.

While 'Cottonwood' starts and finishes in the titular town, it ranges far and wide in the intervening years. Yes, that's right, years. Phillips covers an epic number of years and encompasses an epic number of events without any of the unwieldy weight of an epic. The emotions are truer, lower-key than in the overblown myth-makers we're used to. Ogden journeys from Cottonwood to San Francisco, and ranges across the plains. He grows and he changes while his children grow up and become adults. This is a novel that has a lot of life in it, convincingly written to convey the sweep of a life lived on the edge. It's big stuff that feels light and natural.

Phillips manages this with some very controlled prose. The story is told entirely in the first person, from Bill Ogden's point of view. He's a voracious man, who hungers for more though he does not always know what "more" means. There are moments of gentle humor and a stunning interlude of poetic beauty set in an abandoned greenhouse. Phillips can really write, but he only does so in the service of telling this fascinating story.

Out of the weave of Ogden's life, a nasty pattern emerges. Some of those roundly-drawn characters prove to be much nastier than they seemed. But the crime around which the novel coalesces -- based on a real incident -- is darker and murkier than the reader will expect and has reverberations that stretch across the years. The rotten core of this novel is grounded in grotty scenes of dark discovery that linger even after the covers are closed.

'Cottonwood' shows Phillips to be a writer of unexpected range and power. His previous novels, 'The Ice Harvest' and 'The Walkaway' showed a writer who could nail the reader to a chair with gritty prose and layered plotting. 'Cottonwood' finds the same criminal concerns centering the work, but they're explicated in the manner of a picaresque western rather than a pulp crime novel. Yet the novel has lots of connection to the previous novels. Phillips is slowly building a world, and it's a world well worth visiting. If you're visiting via the Dennis McMillan limited edition expect the usual amenities; gorgeous book production, a lovely cover from Michael Kellner, and foil-pressed endpapers. Phillips is set to write for the long haul, and if that proves to be the case, then McMillan's editions of his books are going to be a wise investment as well as an artfully produced volume. It's certainly the best way to visit Phillips' world. And while it is a great place to visit, it's not a nice place to live -- very much like the world we find ourselves forced to live in.