Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

The troubled killer


The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1850s, time of the California gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are on contract to track down and kill a man they don’t know, Hermann Kermit Warm. To do this, they must travel from Oregon City — the last civilized outpost on the Oregon Trail — to the California gold fields, a journey of some weeks through rough and hostile wilderness. The brothers have become famous for their skill in killing people, Charlie shooting quickly and enthusiastically and completely calmly, even when he isn’t being paid to do it. Eli, however, the younger brother who tells this story, is disturbed when he loses his temper and explodes in violence and imagines that he would be happier in some other line of work. But he can’t convince Charlie and even though he resents being bossed around by him, can’t bear to leave him. Eli also longs for the company of a woman he won’t have to pay, which for the aggressive, impetuous Charlie is never a problem. The brothers finally find their intended victim, and then, in a surprising and rapid turn of events, everything, including the relations between them, changes radically.
The pleasures of this tale of hard riding on Eli’s not very good horse are in Eli’s reflections on his relations with his brother and his voice, describing the hardships and violence that everybody takes for granted in frontier days.
The saga is an imitation of the much more brutal contemporary accounts of those lives which I read obsessively in my teen years, as were most of the movie westerns that got me started on that research. We do learn in the course of the story how the brothers got started on their career of murder, which is entirely plausible in those times, but Eli’s careful diction and the ease with which he reads a letter and a diary are never explained.
For me, the saga suffered in the preposterous ending, which required a series of coincidences and a mysterious chemical formula that seemed to belong to another genre, horror fantasy, and snapped my suspension of disbelief. Still, I think readers even as jaded as I will enjoy the voice of the troubled killer, poor, overweight and extremely talkative Eli Sisters.

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