It is not buffalo but a mass murderer who is on display in Kim Zupan’s “The Ploughmen” (Henry Holt, 256 pages, $26): “Having shifted forward, Gload now sat half in light, half in dark, and he looked to have been sheared in two and set for display, head and shoulders of a taxidermied felon, a trophy displayed for tourists or schoolchildren in a diorama of prison life: table, chair, cot. Killer.”
The septuagenarian John Gload, with hands that could “squeeze juice out of a stove log,” has finally been arrested after a lifetime of robbery and murder. The night watchman, Deputy Sheriff Valentine Millimaki, is instructed to get him talking about his crimes. A rapport inevitably develops, much like that between Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and the charming old monster persuades Millimaki to open up about his broken childhood and unraveling marriage.
And like Mr. Harris, Mr. Zupan produces pleasurably lush and baroque prose, especially when describing his setting’s awesome and unforgiving topography: In a Missouri River bank are “spalls of shale like medieval roof tiles randomly shingling the slanted ground”; the sky above a mountain forest is “galleried by a coven of ghostly pinetops.” (Mr. Zupan can also spread his adjectives too thickly, leading to invocations of “aqueous niggardly light” and “innominate shadows,” whatever those are.)
The geography in “The Ploughmen” is interestingly indefinite. Its main setting, Copper County, is fictitious, but Millimaki’s police work takes him to real locations across the state, from the coulees, crags and hoodoos near the Fort Peck Reservoir in the northeast to the front range of the Rocky Mountains in the far west, “the seeming edge of the world.” All of these places tend to yield up corpses.
Gload of course adds further to the tally before the story is over. The dramatic twists in “The Ploughmen” are utterly predictable (especially if you know “The Silence of the Lambs”), yet that doesn’t detract from the book’s chilly aura of loneliness and dread, and its pregnant summoning of the “malevolent world of the outside.” It gives pause to the state’s love-struck visitors by suggesting that the more beautiful the scenery, the more skeletons it contains.