Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian – excellent

February 1, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (1998) French title: Incident à Twenty-Mile. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of westerns. I know of the genre, I’ve seen passages of films, I know the key actors and what they look like but I haven’t actually watched a lot of those films. My mind doesn’t keep an extensive bank of western images for future reference. I like to think that I approach westerns in books with an almost clean mind.

My first western book was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and the next one was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Incident at Twenty-Mile is my third visit to the genre, a western written by Trevanian in 1998. To be more precise, it is a novel that mixes two genres, western and crime fiction.

The novel opens at the State Prison at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1898. Lieder is a very dangerous prisoner held in the security quarters of the prison. He reads a lot, can manipulate his wards and has already escaped from two other prisons. His new ward is a rookie and his colleagues have warned him against Lieder’s sneaky ways and violence.

Meanwhile, a young man named Matthew arrives at the small of town of Twenty-Mile, a town settled along a railway line between the town of Destiny and a silver mine up in the mountain. The few inhabitants of Twenty-Mile survive because they provide necessities and entertainment to the miners every weekend. This explains why the city has a General Store owned by Mr Kane and his daughter, an inn operated by the Bjorkvist family, a barber shop run by Pr Murphy, a brothel managed by Mr Delany and his three “girls” and a stable handled by Coots and BJ Stone.

When Matthew arrives at Twenty-Mile, he’s penniless and looking for a job. He makes a tour of the business owners but none of them wants to hire him. He doesn’t give up and convinces each of them to employ him for a few hours a day, selling himself at a low price in order to create his own job.

Through hard work, calm and politeness, Matthew worms himself in Twenty-Mile, ends up settling in the vacated sheriff’s house. He needs to belong to a community and decided to settle in this isolated town full of misfits.

From the beginning, we see that Matthew is a troubled man. He tries too hard. He’s afraid of rejection. He has a childish obsession for the children books The Ringo Kid, an anachronic reference to a Marvel Comics series from the 1950s. When he doesn’t know what to do, Matthew wonders what The Ringo Kid would do and acts accordingly. His father was a drunkard and he’s still trying to heal the scars he got from domestic violence and poverty. He wants to be loved and part of something.

Of course, Lieder escapes from Laramie’s prison with other inmates and decides that the money from the silver mine near Twenty-Mile would be a good loot. The town of Twenty-Mile gets prepared to defend itself against this dangerous criminal.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is absolutely brilliant. Trevanian is a gifted writer, with a flowing prose, a knack for describing landscapes and for setting a specific atmosphere. The people in Twenty-Mile are well-drawn, each of them has something in their past or their present that keeps them hostage of the place. The town is a character in itself, an example of these remote Western towns that grew over night, along with the discovery of gold or silver veins. Wyoming and Montana have ghost towns and Twenty-Mile is already declining. We know that if the mine closes, this town up the mountain will die with it.

This is my second Trevanian in a year, the other one was The Summer of Katyaa psychological thriller set in the Basque country in France before WWI. Despite the very different settings, the two books have similarities.

Here, Trevanian plays with codes of westerns, it’s obvious in the various descriptions of the street in Twenty-Mile and the way Matthew repeatedly squints at the horizon. You can almost hear a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In both books, characters experienced a trauma in their adolescence and it affects their abilities to live as capable and sane adults. Lieder is a psychopath and his damaging childhood released a lot of violence in him, a total lack of empathy and a messianic vision of his role in this world. It’s a bit chilling and uncanny to hear him promote WASP supremacy and rant against immigrants.

Matthew isn’t a functioning adult either, only the outcome is different. He was the recipient of raw violence and does everything he can to tame these tendencies, thanks to the Ringo Kid ideal. I can’t say more to avoid spoilers but Trevanian’s exploration of Matthew’s mind and past goes farther.

In The Summer of Katya, Trevanian showed a pointed interest in psychoanalysis. I think that it is present in Incident at Twenty-Mile too and this particular undertone gives a special flavor to his novel.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is an excellent thriller, with an extraordinary sense of place, well-drawn characters and good suspense. Highly recommended.

Another great find by Gallmeister and masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

  1. Vishy
    February 1, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I don’t think I have read many Western novels either, though I have read a lot of Western comics. I want to read Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage sometime. Trevanian’s book looks wonderful! Glad you liked it. Interesting to know that this book has a psychoanalytical undertone! Very fascinating! Will add this to my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    • February 1, 2020 at 7:39 pm

      Thanks Vishy. It is really an excellent novel, with many different angles. I’m not sure it’s easy to find in English, unfortunately.


      • Vishy
        February 2, 2020 at 10:32 am

        Oh, sad to know that it is not easy to find in English. Let me search. Glad to know that it is excellent 🙂


  2. February 1, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    Never heard of this author. But then, like you, am not a huge Western fan. Still, it sounds like you’ve had a pretty good experience with the genre so far.


    • February 1, 2020 at 7:40 pm

      Gallmeister have decided to republish it. The Summer of Katya was very good too but I liked this one better. His most famous book seems to be Shibumi, but this one isn’t for me.


  3. February 2, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    I’m not a big Western reader/watcher either, although I did enjoy The Sisters Brothers. This does sound excellent, I should be more open-minded about the genre!


    • February 2, 2020 at 8:25 pm

      It’s really a thriller on a double level, it’s extremely well constructed. Plus he has a great style.
      I’m surprised he’s not better known as a writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. February 6, 2020 at 11:42 am

    I watched a few films of westerns back in my youth when they seemed to always be the Sunday afternoon option on tv but I’ve never read a book in the genre. What made you decide to start reading them?


    • February 6, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      First one was because I was going to Utah.
      Second one sounded nice.
      This one is because I knew the writer and I love the publisher.


      • February 10, 2020 at 10:35 pm

        I didn’t see any cowboys on my trip around Utah! some very interesting Navajo Indians


        • February 10, 2020 at 10:37 pm

          I had the same experience as you.
          Have you ever read Tony Hillerman?


          • February 11, 2020 at 11:11 am

            No sorry, I dont recognise the name


            • February 11, 2020 at 9:35 pm

              He writes crime fiction set in the Hopi and Navajo reservations. There are lots of details about the culture, it’s excellent if you want to learn more about Navajo & Hopi traditions.


              • February 11, 2020 at 11:03 pm

                I did enjoy learning about the culture and traditions so this could be interesting. Thanks Emma


  5. February 7, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Fascinating! I’ve always thought of Westerns as quite predictable, following certain genre rules (also based on childhood Sunday-afternoon TV!), so it’s good to hear that the author plays with those codes and creates something unique and fresh. I’ve never heard of Trevanian either, but perhaps I should have.


    • February 8, 2020 at 8:07 am

      Wow, westerns Sunday afternoons was really a thing in the UK some years ago!

      Like The Sisters Brothers, it’s a new take on the genre. Trevanian is a gifted writer and he goes deeper than gun scenes and violence.


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