Stag: A Novel

Image of Stag: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 9, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“Stag is an excellent crime novel by an emerging author who shows an unerring feel for rural noir and a shining promise of more to come . . .”

It’s 1989, and someone is killing vulnerable young women near Port Cook, Washington, staging their bodies in the woods and in abandoned buildings to give the appearance of a series of pagan, ritualistic murders.

Amos Fielding wants nothing to do with it. A retired sheriff from Oscar, Iowa, Fielding bought a modest ranch near Port Cook to escape his past, come to terms with the death of his wife of 49 years, and lose himself in the mist and rain of the Pacific Northwest.

However, when he befriends Dee Batey, a former DEA agent turned Fish and Wildlife officer, he’s left with little choice. Batey found one of the killer’s early victims several years ago, and the horrific nature of the crime has disturbed him ever since. As their friendship grows, so does Fielding’s involvement in Batey’s obsessive need to find the killer.

Stag is Dane Bahr’s second novel, following his psychological thriller The Houseboat (2022). An emerging author, Bahr expressed a desire early in his career not to be typecast as a regional author, insisting that local color should always take a back seat to the story and its characters.

Stag demonstrates to all and sundry that his talent as an author of rural noir, location notwithstanding, is very real. Without a doubt, his story and characters earn top billing in this novel.

Fielding is a very strong protagonist, introspective and very, very lonely. How many other retired sheriffs from small-town Iowa quote Schopenhauer?

“He said life swings backward and forward between pain and boredom,” Fielding tells Batey. “When we’re in pain we want the numbness of boredom and when we’re bored we want to feel somethin’ else.”

An apt description of the retired sheriff himself.

Batey, his wife Coraline, and FBI field agent Philip Wilson are strong supporting characters who give Fielding plenty of room to reveal his inner landscape, whether through his amusing refusal to ride his horse because the horse doesn’t like it, his grief at the loss of his wife, or his attention to the beauty of his surroundings.

In fact, some of Bahr’s best writing comes in this last context:

“The other night,” he says to Coraline, “I put Snake and Buck out and right as I did this gorgeous sunset hit. Wham. And with the horses standin’ there. It was somethin’."

“There you go," Coraline said.

“Yeah, Fielding said, “but then it was gone. And then it just got dark.”

A perfect evocation of the atmosphere readers expect in any good rural noir crime novel.

One area for improvement next time out is his switch in point of view to that of the bad guy—in this case Noon, the killer. While it’s understood that this is a popular device enjoyed by many readers, particularly in the psychological thriller sub-genre, it dominates the middle third of Bahr’s novel to the point of risking the loss of some of his readers.

The problem is that Noon is just not a very interesting character. He’s argumentative to the point of being hard on the nerves, and he’s like an inflatable psycho-doll, predictable and stereotypic. While he’s an excuse for Bahr to explore all the dark, horrible things done to his victims, he gets a little tiresome after a while.

Where’s Amos? Let’s get back to Amos, can’t we?

Despite this rough patch in the story, Stag is an excellent crime novel by an emerging author who shows an unerring feel for rural noir and a shining promise of more to come in the future.