Cover image of "The Sisters Brothers," a novel about hired killers in the old West

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Here’s a Western that’s more Deadwood than Gunsmoke. It had to be: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And the panjandrums who manage that process aren’t known to show favor to run-of-the-mill genre writing. The Sisters brothers of the title are notorious hired killers in the employ of a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore. Charlie, the older of the two, is a sociopath whose initiation into murder began when he shot his father to death at the age of 10. The younger man, Eli, is a gentler soul—except when he loses his temper. But that seems to happen whenever he and Charlie are in the final stages of a job for the Commodore. This is the setup in Patrick DeWitt’s hilarious story of hired killers in the old West, The Sisters Brothers.

From Gold Rush country to Babylon by the Bay

The year is 1851, with the California Gold Rush at fill tilt. Eli narrates this story, which begins in Oregon City and traverses the wilderness of southern Oregon and northern California, through Gold Rush country, and on to Babylon on the Bay, as San Francisco in that era has been so richly described. The brothers are on the trail of a certain German-American gentleman, Hermann Warm, who has allegedly stolen something from the Commodore. Their mission, as always, is to kill him. Another day, another dollar.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011) 336 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Gold Rush prospectors, who figure in this novel about hired killers in the Old West
Prospectors working a placer mining site for gold around the time in this novel. Image: Wikipedia

A hilarious romp through the Far West

Eli’s narration, in the formal locutions of the period, matter-of-factly relates the passing of scenery and the murder of innocent bystanders with equal understatement. Dialogue, largely between the brothers, rings with the cadences we associate with the Old West. However, when alone on the trail or in a hotel room, Eli at times engages in long soliloquies, as when he spends “the rest of the night rewriting lost arguments from my past, altering history so that I emerged victorious.” You may find all this hilarious, as I did. But you’d have to like that sort of thing.

These, you see, are no run-of-the-mill gunslingers.

Nor do the novel’s other characters fit recognizable stereotypes. Here, for example, is the response to the brothers from one of their targets: “’Yes, you demand that we should share our profits with you, and if we choose against this, well, you will be obligated to kill us. Do you see how your proposal might be lacking, from our point of view?’”

You see what I mean?

About the author

Photo of Patrick DeWitt, author of this novel about hired killers in the Old West
Patrick DeWitt. Image: Danny Palmerlee – Portland Monthly

Patrick DeWitt was born on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in 1975 but was raised primarily in Southern California. He has become an American citizen. As of this writing, he has written five novels, one work of nonfiction, and two screenplays. DeWitt is amicably separated from his wife, with whom he has a son. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve also reviewed (unfavorably) a later novel by the author, Undermajordomo Minor (The strangest tale I’ve read in years, and it’s not science fiction).

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