Caught by the River

Hair of the Dog: John Galligan's Angling Detective Novels

15th October 2008

by Dexter Petley

John Galligan writes fishing detective novels as only Americans can.  Angling crimes with angling solutions, Galligan’s prose is kick-arse, pure craft, real hand-built perfection.  Every line is a risky cast, flow as clear as a chalk-stream, vocabulary hard as boron.  Galligan’s detective is of the reluctant kind.  Shit happens when you’re fishing, he knows that, so do we.  You get drawn in, especially when you find a body floating face up, pony tail stuffed in his mouth, kitted up in Orvis head to toe, cane fly rod worth a thousand bucks in hand.

What is important is that Galligan poses all the questions fiction needs to ask itself to create his angling detective “The Dog”.  The Dog has gone full circle, self-destructed on the corperate front line.  The only thing left is fishing.  The danger of such a line is to fall into Zen dippiness like so many American writers have done when purifying life and going on the road. But Galligan is astute enough to jump the trap and exploit the linguistic opportunities of the real world running parallel to nature.   His third Dog novel has just been published.  

The Clinch Knot

The third book in the critically acclaimed Fly Fishing mystery series. Ned Oglivie is fishing the Roam River in Montana when the death of a friend, Jessie, a local white girl is pinned on another friend Sneed, a young black man who can’t defend himself because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ned investigates a local lawyer with odd aspirations, a pair of white supremacists, and the local fly fishing outfitter who employed both the suspect and the victim.

the Clinch Knot summary;

The Dog is in Livingston, Montana, daydreaming about fishing the ‘Stone and, as usual, subsisting on Swisher Sweets, vodka-Tang, and the hope that pretending to forget will be enough.

He’s forged a few tenuous friendships, and now finds himself watching from the bank as troubled local girl Jesse Ringer leads D’Ontario Sneed into the swift current of young love. It’s sweet, really … but some of the locals object to the relationship on the basis of Sneed’s skin color.

Then the unthinkable: vibrant, wild Jesse is found shot in the head, and Sneed is passed out in her car, gun beside him, window seams taped, and engine running. Sneed is hospitalized for severe carbon monoxide poisoning and can’t string together a sentence to defend himself, so it falls to the Dog.
If only the Dog could run from his life without ending up in the tangle and snarl of the lives of others. A man who wants to lose himself in the current must be careful of his backcast; it’ll always keep him tethered to a life he’s trying to forget.
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Praise for John Galligan’s The Clinch Knot

“At the outset of Galligan’s stunning third Montana-set fly-fishing mystery*(after 2005’s The Blood Knot), Ned “Dog” Oglivie, a self-described “traveling drunk” and “trout hound” who lives out of his asthmatic 1984 Cruise Master RV, has befriended a jailed bull rider’s daughter, Jesse Ringer, and her black boyfriend, D’Ontario Sneed. Then, off a mountain road outside Livingston, soon after an ugly encounter with skinheads, Dog finds Jesse shot to death on the ground and Sneed unconscious in Jesse’s sealed car, nearly dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Sneed’s earthy mother, Aretha, supplies Dog with comfort and common sense as he seeks to prove Sneed didn’t murder Jesse. With a plot as entangled as a drunkard’s fishing line, this Big Sky excursion into the wilds of human frailty deftly and surely snags the imagination. The ending offers just a hint, elusive as that legendary brown trout of fishermen’s dreams, of redemption for Galligan’s beguiling antihero.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Working in troubled waters, a peripatetic fly fisherman catches murder, romance and the occasional trout.It’s been four years since Ned Ogilvie could think of himself as the husband, father and businessman he once was. A devastating family tragedy has propelled him into what he regards as an irrevocably altered state: “I am the Dog now. I am a trout hound. I fish, I drive, I fish, I drive, I fish.” Finding himself in picturesque Livingston, Mont., the Dog plans to plant his waders in the nearby Roam River, a fly-fishing Mecca. He’s temporarily sidetracked when Sneed and Jesse, a pair of engaging young lovers, attach themselves to him, making the Dog feel pleasantly avuncular and content just to hang out for a while. But Sneed is black, Jesse is white, and soon Livingston’s hate community takes notice. Jesse is murdered; Sneed is arrested; and the Dog knows the mighty Roam will have to wait longer. His task—to keep Sneed from being railroaded by reeling in the killer—is certainly challenging. But it turns out that the self-proclaimed trout hound has enough bloodhound in him to sniff out the dark stuff homicides are made of. It’s not the fly fishing, but the cast: good guys to root for, villains to hiss. Galligan (The Blood Knot, 2005, etc.) has the knack.”

“In Galligan’s third fly-fishing mystery, a subgenre he has made his own, Ned Oglivie, better known as Dog, is four years into a fishing-and-alcohol (vodka and Tang is the preferred beverage) binge that has brought him to the Yellowstone River in Livingston, Montana. He has befriended a young black man named D’Ontario Sneed and his new love, a local white girl named Jesse Ringer, and it seems that the deep hurt in Dog’s past may finally begin to heal. The idyllic interlude ends catastrophically when Jesse is found dead and D’Ontario is charged with murder and attempts suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. D’Ontario is left brain damaged, so it falls to Dog to prove his friend’s innocence and find the murderer. There is no shortage of suspects, each sinisterly eccentric and sharply drawn, and Dog’s quest takes more turns than a meandering trout stream. It’s just the thing for a blustery day when the rivers are blown out and the fish are off the bite.”
Galligan is faultess on characters up the creek.  Every walk on weirdo is existentially uplifting, tautly observed, blisteringly put down or held up for further viewing.  This is no illusions narrative, even the Dog has no illusions about himself.  Burned out at 40, his life down to the backing, the Dog has cashed in his holdings, bought a camper van, a fly rod, a cell phone, a pistol and gone feral.  The ten thousand bucks to his name was put in the hands of his tax guy.  The Dog wants three hundred a week for as long as it lasts, sent in 300 dollar chunks to the bank nearest the next trout stream on the trail.  As the first in the series, The Nail Knot , opens he’s been going two years and sums up his mission thus:

There it was: the way of The Dog.  In two-plus years I had done this to a hundred streams.  I rolled in and set up camp in the Cruise Master, then fished a stream stem to stern and to the brink of exhaustion, day after day, until the place became familiar, until I could tell myself I had cracked it like a nut.  Then the trick was to leave fast, because I knew next I would begin to drift back into myself, talk to myself, or I would meet someone, begin to talk to them-and I knew the noise of human interaction as the noise of death.

The angling writing alone is exquisite.  It is driven and edgy.  Most angling writing commits suicide or crawls up its own arse because it has no purpose other than purposelessness or fallacial time-wasting.  Galligan writes on red alert and never drops a stitch.  He pushes himself like the Dog has too, but he says himself that he is no Dog: I am not the Dog. But like most middle aged fisherman, I fantasize about being the Dog. However, my deeper analysis of this is that such a life must come at tremendous cost, as it does with Ned Oglivie, who lives out the highs and lows of the fantasy for us all. My line about this is “There but for the grace of Dog go I.”

 Galligan is in reality a full time college writing teacher, a father of two and a faculty department head with a puppy living in Wisconsin.  That takes care of the writing, then.  Any serious fiction writer who fishes is somehow or other going to get angling into a novel.  Generally, we can’t write about angling, put angling into fiction, if angling just goes as it should: ie you turn up and fish and catch a few and go home. Shit has to happen.  No?:

 I have not found a dead body in the stream, Galligan told me in an exclusive interview, but feel that inevitably I someday will. I once saw a brown-haired head floating in the water–and in the 15 seconds or so it took me to figure out it was in fact a dead duck, I suffered some pretty severe trauma. The idea for a fly fishing murder mystery came to me in a dream. I have had some nasty encounters with property owners and other fishermen that were suggestive of violence.

Ah yes, and it shows.  The dead duck undergoes essential fictional makeover:

That’s when I saw something moving in the creek about a hundred yards up…I struggled for a long moment before I centred on something large and whitish, bobbing up and down in the centre of a big pool.

           My heart snagged.  The object was pale and round and twitching…just the size of a human head…bobbing through an eddy…

It’s not a head, or the duck, but a white plastic milk jug, there in the narrative to bring in one of these other fisherman suggestive of violence.  The jug is a poacher’s float and there’s a gut-hooked trout thrashing on the end of it.  The Dog half-drowns trying to get to it but the poacher is out collecting and pulls the Dog out, and a long Bowie knife too, which has the tout’s guts spilling while the Dog, a no-kill buckler without swash, remonstrates:

I imagined the long blade slicing through Jake Jacob’s pony tail.  Clean.  Easy.  Fast.

“No-kill, my ass.”  He spat again.  “You’re probably going to go home to have a goddamn steak.”


“I live here,” he said.  “Save the sermon.  I grew up here.  My daddy and grandaddy grew up here.  We been fishing this creek a hundred years.”

“If you call that fishing,” I said.

He looked me over.  I was rigged to be out all day: waders, vest, water bottle, a dozen fly boxes, hemostats, nippers, leaders and tippet spools, fly gink, net, the whole deal.

“Hell yes, I call this fishing,” he retorted.


Angling scenes in fiction are a commercial risk as well as potentially alienating.  The mainstream is only just waking up to the potential, but during the experimental phase it’s vital that any angling fiction or mass market fishing literature is fresh, faultless and energetic.  This, sadly, has not been the case.  Some recent high profile titles have failed to hit that mark.  Publishers are going to close ranks again, and readers are going to think fishing writing is as dull as the practice.  Galligan is an exception.  Galligan should be flagged and read, only he’s languishing with a small provincial publisher whose average author advance is five hundred pansy-arsed quid.  It’s therefore heartening to hear Galligan on his readers and sales: I recently won a reader’s poll for Crimespree Magazine’s Book of the Year award (2005), and believe me, those folks are not fisherpeople. My sales are on the low end of modest. Around ten thousand for each book. Selling in person at fishing expos is a great way to do it. Fly fishermen are great readers.

Ten thousand is very reasonable.  Shifting fiction is the job you don’t want these days.  If your novel hasn’t worked its own passage in the first month, the publisher dumps it on the author’s head.  It’s a bag of cement left out in the rain.  Galligan probably knows this.

I wrote a literary novel that I’m very proud of (Red Sky, Red Dragonfly) but it did not reach an audience. I decided to write for an audience. I may move on after a couple more Dog stories.

I describe myself as the love child of Elmore Leonard and Lillian Jackson Braun–meaning style from one and structure from the other. I greatly admire the sporting literature of Thomas McGuane, Ian Frazier, and W.D. Wetherell. I love the collection of fishing stories titled “A Wedding Gift” by John Taintor Foote.

John Galligan’s two previously published Fly Fishing Mysteries, The Nail Knot(2003) and The Blood Knot (2005) are published by Bleak House Books of Madison, Wisconsin USA.

John Galligan’s site here