Avatar: Richard Hugo’s Murky Murder Mystery about the Detective who Wanted to be a Poet

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Flathead Lake, western Montana. Hugo loved to fish Montana’s lakes and streams. (Photo: John Acher)

Seattleites know native son Richard Hugo (1923–82) from powerful poems evoking his bleak White Center upbringing or from the writers’ center that bears his name on Capitol Hill. But toward the end of his life, Hugo penned a rollicking crime novel, Death and the Good Life (1981), that plays out as a veritable Pacific Northwest road trip on a Montana-Idaho-Oregon axis with Seattle as a backdrop.

Though often called a regionalist of the West or “poet of place,” above all, Hugo knew people.

The hero of Hugo’s one and only mystery is Al “Mush Heart” Barnes, a 40-year-old former Seattle cop who quits the SPD after three near-fatal gunshot wounds and lights out for the Rocky Mountains. He finds himself in the small timber town of Plains, Montana, where he hires on as deputy to Sanders County Sheriff Red Yellow Bear.

Deputy Barnes, who earned his nickname Mush Heart by going easy on Seattle criminals (except for murderers), has low ambitions for his semi-retirement job as a Montana crime-buster. He spends his first year in Plains issuing more traffic warnings than tickets, quieting drunken teenagers, and getting cozy with Arlene, a bar owner, single mom, generous cook, and frisky lover.

It’s hard not to see Barnes – he had “studied for three years at the University of Washington, majoring in creative writing, of all things” and aspired to be a poet before becoming a cop – as Hugo’s alter ego. Hugo, who studied under the great Theodore Roethke at UW (earning a B.A. in 1948 and a master’s in 1952), adopted the Big Sky Country as his home for most of the last 18 years of his life after moving to Missoula in 1964 at age 40 to teach creative writing at the University of Montana. Hugo and Barnes even share a love of baseball and fishing.

Hugo eventually found contentment in Montana – status, close friends, an anchoring marriage, and the drive to complete six more collections of poetry, in addition to his 1961 Seattle debut, A Run of Jacks.

“Richard Hugo loved Montana in a big way,” wrote James Welch, author, friend, neighbor, and student of Hugo at the UM, in his introduction to a 1991 edition of the novel. Welch also said Hugo was an avid reader of crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, Cain, and others – and even wrote an unpublished murder mystery in his youth.

Richard Hugo ca. 1970, by Lee Nye. (courtesy of © Nye Imagery, Ltd)

In the novel, Barnes’s tranquility is shattered when the Plains sawmill’s accountant is found by his fishing companions at Rainbow Lake with his skull chopped into “sickening pulp.” A tip from a drunken UM literature professor (shades of Hugo again) puts Barnes on the trail of an exceptionally tall mad woman. The search takes him by road to Idaho where Barnes aches to fish the Lochsa and goes on a bender in Kamiah and Kooskia on the banks of the Clearwater with his lady suspect. But he soon (spoiler alert) solves the crime, the last in a series of random murders in Montana and Idaho by a lone lunatic.

Things grow even murkier back in Plains when a second victim, the plant manager Robin Tingley, turns up axed to death in the log yard, a near copy-cat killing that Barnes soon reckons was meant to hide the identity and motive of a second, unrelated murderer by disguising the crime as fifth in the series.

Shocked, Plains falls cold and silent. “When I drove to Orney’s [bar], dogs outnumbered people two to one. I saw one dog,” says Barnes, the narrator of the tale.

When fishermen find the axe, presumably used in the second murder six miles downstream from the mill, Yellow Bear tells Barnes by phone: “We can’t prove anything. It’s new and clean. We assume it’s the axe used on Tingley because it seems stupid to be throwing a new axe into an old river.”

An abundance of coincidence points to a link to an unsolved murder 19 years earlier of a teenaged girl in Cannon Beach, Oregon. So, Barnes heads west, albeit by air, to Portland where his Northwest road trip resumes, throughout the city from its seedy back alleys to its poshest neighborhood, across the Columbia to Vancouver, Washington, and up the coast to Cannon Beach and Seaside, Oregon. A good two-thirds of the story takes place in Oregon; Seattle is present only in Barnes’s rear-view mirror.

In Portland, would-be poet Barnes teams up with police officer John Mrvich, a poet who had served with Mush Heart in Seattle years earlier, and defense lawyer Rick Petrov, another poet. Barnes meets yet another kindred spirit in a Portland man reading a book of poetry by William Stafford, a long-time Oregon resident whose poems Hugo admired. “I liked him immediately,” Barnes says of the reader.

The novel’s evocations of the landscape, weather, and watering holes of Montana, Idaho, and Oregon slot into the motherlode of Hugo’s poetics of place. “April is the cruelest month, my ass,” Barnes says; “in Montana the months that break their promises aren’t nearly as cruel as those that keep theirs.”

Barnes calls the bar in Dixon, Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation, “as homey a bar as I’d ever seen.”  Hugo honored the bar in two poems in his 1973 collection The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, and it was among his haunts when he drank heavily from the mid-1960s when he moved to Missoula and divorced his first wife to around 1971 when he went on the wagon, according to his Missoulian obituary.

“One thing I like about Montana is that people there – many of them – feel the way I do about bars,” the poet said in Annick Smith’s 1976 documentary film Richard Hugo: Kicking the Loose Gravel Home. “They think of certain bars as being home. Montana is full of bars one can use this way […], and even though the love you find there requires the ritualistic exchange of money, it is perhaps as deep and lasting as the love you find anywhere else.” 

Barnes’s constant ogling of women is likely to repulse readers today, but the deputy’s heart is in the right place, and he almost toes the line with Arlene. Hugo, too, had a roving eye. Looking back on his life in Smith’s documentary, Hugo said, “There are about 30 or 40 women I regret that I never had any relations with, make that 50.”

Death and the Good Life is an unkempt yarn of plot curlicues and Crumley-esque characters that make this reader wonder if it was the outcome of a barroom dare between Hugo and fellow crime writer James Crumley (1939–2008), who was at the UM with Hugo in 1966-69. According to CrimeReads editor Dwyer Murphy, Crumley turned to writing detective fiction, after reading Chandler and Macdonald, at the suggestion of his friend Hugo. Crumley said in a 2005 interview, “I get all my good titles from Hugo poems.”

The title of Crumley’s Last Good Kiss (1978) came from a line in Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” (1973), and Crumley dedicated the novel “for Dick Hugo, grand old detective of the heart.” Crumley’s novel The Right Madness (2005) got its title from Hugo’s poem “The Right Madness on Skye” (1980).

After all, the two were fellow drinkers at Eddie’s Club, the working man’s bar in Missoula (now Charlie B’s on Higgins Ave.) where their black-and-white portraits by the bartender/photographer Lee Nye (1926-99) hang on the wall alongside those of 300 of the bar’s other craggy-faced patrons.

Richard Hugo died in October 1982 of leukemia at age 59 in Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital. His grave is in Missoula.

John Acher never met Hugo, but has long been a fan, and his uncle’s portrait by the photographer/bartender Lee Nye hangs in the same Missoula barroom as Nye’s photo of the Seattle-Montana poet. “So, we’re almost related.”

Nye’s portrait of Hugo is published in A Corner of Space and Time: Lee Nye’s Eddie’s Club Portraits (2020), by Jean Belangie-Nye, Aaron Teasdale, and Benjamin Ferencz. The book won the High Plains Award for the best art & photography book of 2021 and an IPPY Award gold medal in the West-Mountain regional non-fiction category in 2021.

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John Acher grew up in Missoula, Montana, but spent most of his adult life, including 17 years as a Reuters newsman, in the Nordic countries – Finland, Norway, and Denmark. He moved to Seattle in 2017.

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