Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises

Hired killers, The Sisters Brothers, star in Patrick DeWitt's novel

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, which seems to happen whenever he and Charlie are in the final stages of a job for the Commodore.


The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)


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.

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.”

This, you see, is no run-of-the-mill gunslinger.

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?’”

Patrick DeWitt is a young Canadian novelist and playwright who lives in Portland, Oregon.

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