Winter Counts

by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Raymond Chandler once described the mystery novel’s P.I. in the following way:” Down these mean streets a man must go who himself is not mean”. In Winter Counts, the stunning crime novel by Lakota writer David Heska Wanbli Weiden, the mean streets Virgil Wounded Horse, a local vigilante, must go are the barely maintained roads of Rosewood Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Lakota Sioux.

One of the pleasures of crime novels is how they transport you into secret worlds, places you’ve never imagined. And Winter Counts does this beautifully. Even coming to understand the meaning of the title, which refers to the Lakota pictographic calendar, is an unexpected gift.

Winter Counts book cover

In this remarkable writer’s gorgeous prose, we also come to see the plains of the Dakotas, the destroyed Six Grandfathers Mountain, now Mount Rushmore, the reservation, and the life of the Lakota Sioux from a native person’s eyes, not romanticized, but not wallowing in poverty porn either. There’s plenty of humor, love, friendship, dignity and wonder to fill in the wide-open spaces of the plains and the lives of the people who live there.

And plenty of danger, and violence, too. This time from a cartel heroin ring that is invading the reservation

At first It is not initially apparent that Virgil Wounded Horse is not himself mean, to circle back to Chandler’s description of the lone detective. In the opening chapter, he’s sitting in his car in front of the Depot, the reservation’s only tavern, waiting for Guv Yellowhawk, a local gym teacher who has been molesting students, this time Grace Little Thunder. Virgil is there to enforce laws that the feds are unwilling to enforce, especially when it comes to crimes against women and children. He’s armed with brass knuckles and a baseball bat. He usually charges a hundred bucks for this service. However, since a kid was involved, he’s meeting out this bit of justice on Guv for free.

But soon Virgil finds himself up against a much more dangerous kind of enemy –the drug trade — which his orphaned nephew gets swept up in. It will require more than brass knuckles and baseball bats to find the real criminals and save his nephew’s life.

I could not put this book down. But, don’t take my word for it. Here are some of the accolades:

From Tommy Orange, author of There There — “Winter Counts is a marvel. It’s a thriller with a beating heart and jagged teeth. This book is a brilliant meditation on power and violence, and a testament to just how much a crime novel can achieve.”

From Louise Erdrich, author of The Night Watchman: “ David Heska Wanbli Weiden has written the first of what I hope is a series of book about life on the Rosebud Reservation. Virgil Wounded Horse, his nephew Nathan, and Marie Short Bear are more than characters; they brim with intrigue and authentic life.”

C.J. Box #1 NYT bestselling author of Long Range: “I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it.”