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One of a crime novel’s great pleasures can be its setting: When conventional story elements (loner protagonist, a puzzling crime, the occasional red herring) are developed within a vivid and convincingly rendered community, even the most avid detective novel fans are rewarded with fresh insight into the durable charms of the whodunit. 

The debut novel “Winter Counts” (Ecco, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four) by David Heska Wanbli Weiden delivers such an experience, using familiar aspects of genre to say something new about America’s violence, past and present.

Virgil Wounded Horse is an off-the-books enforcer on the Lakota Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. When felony criminal cases in the community are declined by federal authorities (an all-too-common factual occurrence, according to the author’s note), families of victims turn to the violence that Virgil can mete out, paying for their own brand of justice. 

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Sober now but with a troubled past, Virgil is raising his teenage nephew after Nathan’s mother, Virgil’s sister, was killed in a car accident. Though money is perpetually tight, the two love to argue about sci-fi, watch TV together, and enjoy pizza night with Shasta, a favorite off-brand soda. 

But when Nathan nearly dies from an overdose and then is charged with dealing pills, the drug problem ravaging their community comes home. Virgil, who’d wanted to avoid facing the cartels, now needs to end their grip on the young people like his nephew. This time, as they say, it’s personal.

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One of the strongest aspects of “Winter Counts” (the phrase refers to the symbolic calendar system used by the Lakota) is how Virgil, who is clear-eyed about the U.S.’s systemic oppression of Native people, struggles with whether and how to incorporate traditional culture into his life and work. Can a sweat lodge ceremony help heal an addicted teenager? Can wisdom from the elders provide leads on the drug trade flowing in from Denver? 

What infuriates Virgil is constant focus on the negatives of reservation life. Why doesn’t the media also take note of “all the rez artists and musicians, the skateboard parks, the new businesses, and the groups revitalizing Lakota language and customs?” 

Readers will root for the strong, good-hearted Virgil and his fight to protect his family, and his community. When he restarts a relationship with his ex Marie, the novel brings forward a deepened emotional complexity – and a strong character whose dream of med school is complicated by the politics of tribal education. 

One wishes for more of Marie’s story apart from her perhaps inevitable sidekick role in the investigation plot. And while some readers may correctly suspect who the true bad guy is long before the reveal, there is plenty to enjoy in the journey to the novel’s satisfying conclusion. 

“Winter Counts” is a compelling read and an insightful perspective on identity and power in America.      

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