A Novel of the West Spans Decades and Genres

By Chris Whitaker

The bighearted “We Begin at the End,” by the British crime writer Chris Whitaker, straddles a host of genres. Part thriller, part bildungsroman, part Dickensian tear-jerker and — most startlingly — part western, the novel centers on 13-year-old Duchess Day Radley, a self-described “outlaw” who has been forced to grow up quickly by her troubled mother, Star.

In the prologue of the novel, the roots of Star’s trouble are made clear: When she was a teenager, her little sister was killed, a tragedy from which the remaining members of the family have never recovered. The rest of the story takes place 30 years later, in 2005, when the man held accountable for Sissy’s demise is released from prison. Vincent King’s return to Cape Haven sets off a series of events that imperil the lives of Star, Duchess and Duchess’s younger brother, Robin.

The present-day narrative of “We Begin at the End” centers on another death in Cape Haven — only this time, the culprit isn’t clear. Chief Walker, known as Walk, a childhood friend of both Vincent and Star, begins an investigation. But the procedural aspects of the novel, while satisfying, aren’t the main attraction. What stands out about this novel is Whitaker’s portrayal of Duchess and Robin, Star’s children, who suddenly find themselves on their own, afflicted by tragedy after tragedy. While Walk continues to hunt for answers in Cape Haven, Duchess and Robin are dispatched to rural Montana to live with a series of people they’ve never met.

The sibling relationship at the heart of the book is affecting. I found myself worried for both children, wanting badly for them to catch a break, or just a breath — much in the same way I once wanted Oliver Twist to find a home, or Dicey Tillerman, or any of the archetypal orphans I’ve encountered in literature. It’s never easy to read about children in distress.

Despite this promising foundation, a few issues in the novel’s writing hinder its ability to be truly transporting. First, there is the problem of setting. Neither Cape Haven (near Mendocino, if I understood the context clues correctly) nor the Montana countryside is described sufficiently to feel immersive. Instead, the author reduces both places to their stereotypes: Coastal California equals beaches, landslides, fancy cars and upscale small businesses; Montana equals big sky, barns, horses, small-town parades and snow.

Whitaker has a similar tendency to rely on writerly shortcuts when it comes to his characters. For one thing, there is the matter of their names: Dickie Darke, Vincent King, Thomas Noble, Star Radley (who has a knack for singing) — even Sissy Radley, whose role in the book is primarily to be, well, a sister. If this choice felt more playful, it might work; there is, after all, a long tradition of aptronym in crime writing and westerns, two of the genres to which Whitaker seems to be paying homage.

But Whitaker seems deadly earnest in this choice, and I fear this earnestness has infected his characters as well. When they speak, it is often in blunt declarations about themselves and their circumstances. Duchess, in particular, has a sort of catchphrase she often employs: “I am the outlaw, Duchess Day Radley,” she says at one point, to a man who has heckled her mother, “ and I’ll cut your head clean off.”

This diction, from a 13-year-old living in Mendocino in 2005, is not completely implausible. But it’s so stilted and formal that it implies a level of social unawareness — even nerdiness — in Duchess that the author doesn’t seem to intend. When she isn’t making such proclamations, Duchess sometimes speaks in full poems: “‘This purple’ — she waved a hand at the huckleberries beside — ‘makes me think of her ribs, beat dark like that. The blue water, that’s her eyes, clear enough to see there’s no soul behind them anymore.’”

Yes, Duchess is meant to be precocious; but this version of precocity feels scripted. It does not have the rhythm of human speech.

One explanation might be that “We Begin at the End” is an extended homage to the work of American writers of the West, Charles Portis in particular. Duchess — who is said to be descended from an outlaw — feels a lot like Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old protagonist of Portis’s “True Grit,” who also speaks in an unusual cadence. But unlike Mattie, who narrates her own story with a sort of quiet assurance that immediately affords her both agency and respect, Duchess is described only from the outside, by a narrator who seems to have a particular agenda.

Despite how often we are assured that Duchess is acerbic and tough, she seems in this novel more like an adult’s fantasy of what a tough 13-year-old girl would sound like. In several scenes, Duchess is shown to inspire fear and awe in her peers, but in real life her snappy retorts might be likelier to provoke something akin to secondhand embarrassment.

Descriptions of her appearance also serve to remind us that someone else is telling Duchess’ story. “She was too thin,” Whitaker writes, “too pale, too beautiful like her mother.” And again: “Her hair was tousled, blond like her mother’s. … She was pretty enough that the boys would have lined up, if they didn’t know, if everyone didn’t know.” And once again, as Walk drives her away from a traumatic incident: “She wore shorts. He saw grazed knees and pale thighs.”

It is possible that Whitaker, here, is trying to demonstrate that good looks have been a misfortune in the lives of Duchess and Star. Another explanation might be that describing women’s appearances in this way is simply a convention of the genre in which the author is writing. (Particularly their legs, as when the young Walker first sets eyes on Star: “The rear door opened to the longest legs Walk ever saw.”) The femme fatale is a familiar trope. The problem is that Whitaker doesn’t seem to be doing much with it beyond employing it.

A final issue worth noting is Whitaker’s prose. He writes in a style that is self-consciously poetic and often difficult to follow, relying heavily on sentence fragments, misplaced modifiers and comma splices. I’m in favor of disposing with conventional grammar if a written voice calls for it; here, though, the writing isn’t assured enough to convince us Whitaker is in control. At one point, Whitaker writes: “If it wasn’t for the wire that carved the landscape with such brutality it might have been a scene that stopped breath, ‘Our Good Earth,’ men in jumpsuits nothing but the lost children they once were.”

The novel’s confusing syntax often makes the reader double back, checking for understanding. Whitaker is clearly attempting the style of writers of the American West, but in his hands the voice sounds like a parody.

I’d like to be clear about something, lest anyone think that I’m looking down on the genres in which Whitaker is working (and in which I myself often work): “We Begin at the End” struggles hardest when it ventures toward the literary, not away from it. Self-consciously elevated diction that includes word usage errors can work well in a first-person voice when it’s serving to characterize the narrator, as in “True Grit”; in “We Begin at the End,” which is written in third person, it seems instead to characterize the author.

In the end, Whitaker’s prose — both within the context of his narration and within his characters’ forced-sounding dialogue — hampers what is otherwise a moving, propulsive story.

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