What's in a mystery? In the case of Incident at Twenty-Mile, the mystery is the author, not the book. Thankfully, since the mystery of Trevanian seems unsolvable, the book is very, very good.
Trevanian is a pseudonym. Allegedly, a single individual penned five dissimilar best-sellers and then, 15 years ago, stopped publishing (under that name). Shibumi, The Eiger Sanction, The Loo Sanction, The Main, and Summer of Katya were each well received, but according to Trevanian the publishing world has "...too much of the unpleasant urgency, clatter, and tang of an Oriental market..."
Since publishing was unpleasant, as Trevanian continued to write, the accumulation grew into eight books, some plays, and some short stories. This has all been accomplished from a home in the French Basque mountains. During the missing decade and one-half, Trevanian also claims to have been involved in South African politics, Croatian education, and Argentinean film making. Does anyone doubt that mystery lies with the unseen author?
A fraud? Perhaps these are committee-written novels with clever marketing, or perhaps some master editor reworks first novels. Trevanian admits that some works have been spoofs – even spoofs of spoofs. Trevanian lays claim to a theatrical background and four college degrees. The individual bits of data are believable, but none is verifiable. The gestalt is a brilliant, yet egotistical persona who defies rational belief and is the penultimate mystery character.
If the reader keeps getting novels like Incident at Twenty-Mile, the identity of Trevanian is irrelevant. This particular work grabs as gritty, graphic fiction, but the author's concluding comments promote a strong thread of reality. If Trevanian is unbelievable, the background research might also be considered dubious. Fiction versus historical fiction – let the reader choose.
The plot emerges as the impending collision of two forces. Pure darkest evil approaches a very flawed, unlikely hero. The genre is Western; the period is circa 1900; the locale is Wyoming mining country. Trevanian includes the severe realities of big business, expansionism, and the inequality of capitalism – but it is very easy to ignore the political messages and enjoy the book.
The novel's setting is typical Wild West with familiar characters, but the presentation, depth, and realism are far from stereotype. This is a violently unsettling book with humiliation, torture, rape, and murder portrayed in very graphic style.
Evil comes to the hamlet of Twenty-Mile in the guise of a psychopathic, escaped felon and his two accomplices. The reader is allowed to understand and appreciate the twisted childhood necessary to unleash a psychopath, but neither the characters nor the author beg forgiveness for the existence of evil.
The town's supporting cast include a salt-and-pepper gay couple, a trio of prostitutes, and a consumptive saloon proprietor. The story includes both a sweet young virgin and a homely girl desperate for affection. When the self-styled Ringo Kid walks into the harsh community with a smooth spiel, he rapidly becomes a pivotal part of the town's relationships.
With evil looming, The Kid is obviously the last hope, but his braggadocio begins to falter. As the Trevanian version of a high-noon gunfight approaches, the reluctant hero degenerates into a fugue state. The surprise of the novel seems to be that a climax does occur.
Mystery readers whose appetites are whetted by extended suspense should like this novel.