“Denver Noir,” “Saving Yellowstone” and other books to read this month


Denver Noir (Akashic Books)

“Denver Noir,” edited by Cynthia Swanson (Akashic Books)

Denver has a dark side.  And more than a dozen local authors are telling you all about it.

“Denver Noir” is one of 100 “Noir” books put out by Akashic Books. They range from Istanbul to Wall Street to New Orleans (which has two.) This is Denver’s first, and some of Colorado’s top authors have contributed to it.

Among the best is “Northside Nocturne” by Manuel Ramos, whose own series of noir books is set in North Denver.

Like Ramos’ other writings, “Nocturne” has a strong sense of place. In this story, a series of shootings of white men in a gentrified Chicano neighborhood is scaring newcomers. Real estate developers are especially worried that fear will drive down property values. It “could develop into a mini race war,” Petey, one of the characters, says over Taco Bell nachos. “Everybody thinks the shooter must be a Latino.” The story is filled with racial tension and inevitable doom.

In Barbara Nickless’ “Ways of Escape,” Persephone, an abused teenage girl, runs away from her eastern Colorado home. Nickless is best known for her mysteries featuring a railroad detective, so it’s no surprise that Persephone rides the rails to her Denver destination. It’s a harrowing journey. A vagabond shares his food with her, then demands payment. As to the end of the journey, well … after all, this is a noir book.

The book features 14 writers, among them Peter Heller, who writes about a psychopath who trolls Sloan’s Lake on a paddleboard.  And David Heska Wanbli Weiden tells of a down-and-out lawyer who thinks he’s hit it big. Together, in “Denver Noir,” these authors pen a diverse look at the underside of Denver.

“Saving Yellowstone,” by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)

Saving Yellowstone by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)
Saving Yellowstone by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)

Entrepreneurs were just about to cash in on Yellowstone when Ferdinand Hayden made his historic survey of the park in 1871.  One enterprising soul hoped to build a hotel. Others wanted to homestead within what later became the park boundaries. Hayden not only surveyed the park, he also brought along William Henry Jackson to photograph it and Thomas Moran to paint it.

Hayden’s passion was twofold, writes Megan Kate Nelson, in “Saving Yellowstone.” He not only wanted to record Yellowstone’s treasured land, he also wanted to preserve it.

The Hayden Expedition was made up of 32 men, “almost an army on the march,” Hayden observed. Their job was to analyze, measure and record the rocks and rivers and boiling springs. The result was a report that proved “that Yellowstone represented the nation’s peculiar combination of the sublime and the terrible,” Nelson writes.

After he returned to Washington, D.C., Hayden lobbied hard for a national park. He had powerful supporters, including environmentalists and many members of Congress. But perhaps his biggest backer was financier Jay Cooke, who was working hard to sell bonds to build a railroad through the Northwest. He hoped tourists would clamor to visit the park, making it easier for the proposed rail line to raise money. The opponents of the park designation were Indians, who, even if they knew of the park proposal, had no power to prevent the designation. They just wanted the white men to go away. Unfortunately for them, Hayden’s reports, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings undid them.

Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her earlier book “The Three-Cornered War,” blends the story of the expedition and the fight to designate Yellowstone as a national park with the plight of Native Americans and even the efforts at reconstruction in the South into a fine narrative.

“The Earth Is All That Lasts,” by Mark Lee Gardner (Custom House)

The Earth Is All That Lasts (Custom House)
The Earth Is All That Lasts (Custom House)

Mark Lee Gardner includes two Indian icons, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, in this book about the Native Americans’ tragic fight to keep whites from their lands. Crazy Horse was a feared Lakota warrior, while Sitting Bull, once a courageous fighter, was elevated to the status of a holy man.

The two participated separately in skirmishes to fight the “Long Knives,” as the soldiers were called, and together in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“Brave up,” Crazy Horse would tell his followers. “Only the earth lasts forever.” And they did just that, startling the soldiers with their ferocious attacks. Often armed with traditional bows and arrows and battle axes instead of guns, the Indian were fearsome opponents as they swarmed over the soldiers. “They were thicker than fiddlers in hell,” an officer noted.

Gardner has done prodigious research into the Indian wars, recounting battle after battle, from the glory days to the end for the Lakotas at the infamous Ghost Dance.  Both chiefs were murdered — Crazy Horse in 1877 and Sitting Bull in 1890.

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