I was so puzzled by this book's ending, I picked up the Gabriel Du Pre mystery that comes after it ("Badlands") and read it just to see if it clarified "Ash Child."
It is frustrating to read even a good author like Bowen, when he winds down the end of a mystery without explaining exactly who the villain is, and why he committed his villainies.
Dang, Peter, I've felt like I've just been dragged through a seance in the sweat lodge with the inscrutable Benetsee. Maybe the solution will come to me in a dream.
Meanwhile the Forest Service comes out of this book nearly as whupped as the readers. Bowen relishes taking on any bunch that restricts the freedom of Montanans, including environmentalists in "Wolf, No Wolf," Yuppie tourists in "Cruzatte and Maria," and the FBI in nearly all of his Gabriel Du Pre mysteries. This time the Forest Service comes under attack for not managing its land correctly and for preventing the ranchers from bulldozing fire breaks on their own property. Smokey the Bear's green-shirts endure some pretty scatological commentary, especially after one of them tries to make Du Pre put out his cigarette.
It's the author who's a'growlin and a'prowlin in "Ash Child."
Even Bowen's serial detective, Gabriel Du Pre takes a beating. In this book, he busts his appendix, gets his head dented in, is zapped by a taser, and is nearly burned alive. If you've ever fantasized about living the good life in rugged Montana, you should read all of Bowen's Du Pre mysteries before making your move. Newcomers and old hands alike die by avalanche and grizzly, by gunshot and knife, and by freezing to death in Alberta Clippers. They are burned to death in forest fires and poisoned by evil industrial magnates. It's a tough life even for a tough Metis brand inspector like Du Pre.
In spite of all my negative commentary, if you are already a Du Pre fan you should read "Ash Child." The Big Sky Country is choked by the smoke and ash of deliberately-set forest fires as Bowen's laconic detective sets out (between stays in the hospital) to discover who murdered an old woman with a single, vicious hatchet chop. Do not let yourself be deflected by plot elaborations involving arsonists, drug dealers, and meth addicts. Concentrate on Du Pre's patient tracking of the murderer of old Maddy Collins, and you will find "Ash Child" to be a very satisfying read.