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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

If I had to make a movie pitch for this book, it would be The Blues Brothers meets Deadwood, HBO’s fantastic wild west series, and that encapsulates it in a nutshell for me, save to say that the combination is an absolute winner.

The Blues Brothers just happens to be my favourite film ever – I saw it on a big screen in London on the day it opened to the public back in 1980. By the time the opening tracking shot of the Chicago panorama had narrowed down to Jake’s release from Joliet prison and the chugging strains of He caught the Katy began in the background I was irrevocably hooked.

It’s the mid 1800s and notorious killers for hire, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are are on their way from Oregon to California to kill Herman Kermit Warm.  If you transplanted Jake and Elwood Blues into a western, you’d have Charlie and Eli – and they’re on a mission for the Commodore, (rather than God).

The story is narrated by Eli, who like Elwood, is the thinker of the pair. It becomes clear as the story goes on, that Eli is not happy with their gun-for-hire way of life – he’s ready to find a wife and settle down.  Charlie is a different kettle of fish; he’s a cold-blooded killer and when he’s not on a job, he drinks and whores. They’re so different in character, yet Charlie knows how to rouse Eli’s temper and protective instincts towards his brother to make the pair feared throughout the wild west.

At the start of the story, Eli is talking about horses.  His mount got killed in the last job they did, and he’s had to ride an inferior animal supplied by the Commodore ever since.  Eli is in a bad way, suffering from a poisonous spider-bite and an abscess simultaneously, so when they come upon a cabin, Eli is happy to get rest despite having share the cabin with a mad-woman who curses the doorway. Charlie is superstitious and won’t cross the threshold or let Eli through. Eli can’t fit through the tiny high window, so Charlie leaves Eli to recuperate while he goes to get an axe to widen the window.  Meanwhile a grizzly appears and goes for Eli’s horse, so he goes through the door, shoots it, and goes back inside before Charlie gets back …

‘That’s some nice shooting, brother.’
‘Lucky is all.’ Hoping to change the subject, I asked about the ax.
‘Prospectors heading south.’ he said. There was divot of skin gone from one of his knuckles and I asked how he came to be injured. ‘The men were hesitant to loan me their equipment. Well, they’ll not need the ax, now.’ He returned to the cabin, entering through his hole. I did not know what he was doing at first, but soon saw the smoke issuing from inside. Next, my bag and pan jumped out the window, with Charlie following closely behind and wearing a wide smile. As we rode away the structure was a whirling tornado of whistling heat and flames and the bear, which Charlie had coated in lamp oil, was likewise burning – an impressive sight, but sad, and I was grateful to take leave of the place. It occurred to me that I had crossed the threshold for a horse I did not want but Charlie had not done the same for his own flesh and blood. A life of ups and downs I thought.

That early paragraph encapsulates the brothers’ personalities perfectly to me, and by page 42, I already begun to really like Eli a lot; can’t say the same for his brother though!

The brothers continue on their way, leaving a trail of murder, mayhem and looting behind them and then they reach California. They trade a prized bear pelt to the boss of Mayfield town, who entertains the brothers in the saloon, where they all get drunk.

I grew tired of their strained banter, and became quietly drunk. The women continued to visit and tease me, sitting on my lap until my organ became engorged, then laughing at me or it and moving on to my brother or Mayfield. I remember standing to correct and retuck the bloated appendage and noticing that both my brother and Mayfield were likewise engorged. Just your everyday grouping of civilized gentlemen, sitting in a round robin to discuss the events of the day with quivering erections.

Eli does have a certain turn of phrase! More murder and mayhem will ensure before they finally reach San Francisco where they are to meet the Commodore’s man on the spot with information about their target. San Francisco is a wild and desperate place, the gold rush has caused massive inflation, and in this town you’re either a winner or a loser. Eli chats with a man who’d stopped flogging his horse, as it was dead (!)…

‘It is a wild time here, is it not?’ I said to the man.
‘It is wild. I fear it has ruined my character. It has certainly ruined the character of others.’ He nodded, as though answering himself. ‘Yes, it has ruined me.’
‘How are you ruined?’ I asked.
‘How am I not?’ he wondered.
‘Couldn’t you return to your home town to start over?’
He shook his head. ‘Yesterday I saw a man leap from the roof of the Orient Hotel, laughing all the way to the ground, upon which he fairly exploded. He was drunk they say, but I had seen him sober shortly before this. There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities. That leaping man’s final act was the embodiment of the collective mind of San Francisco. I understood it completely. I had a strong desire to applaud, if you want to know the truth.’

It’s fair to say that Eli didn’t like San Francisco, and the brothers were keen to take up the chase to find their quarry. I won’t elucidate any more, save to say that there is more adventure still to come, and more very black comedy indeed, laced with sadness too in the brothers’ story.

I hope you can tell that I absolutely loved this book. It ticked all the boxes for me – it was slick, hilariously funny, inevitably sad, and very quirky, as well as being extremely strong visually. It would make a spectacular movie in trademark Coen brothers style. The Sisters brothers are larger than life characters with immense appeal for a pair of murdering psychopaths and, like Tony Soprano, you can’t help but like them, all the time you’re not loathing them. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To get your own from Amazon UK, click below:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Blues Brothers [DVD] [1980]
Deadwood : Complete HBO Seasons 1-3 (12 Disc Box Set) [DVD]

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