'Royal Wulff' a keeper

THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS. By Keith McCafferty. Viking. 330 pages. $26.95.

A dead man's body is tugged to the river's surface by a fish hook in the crotch. Now that's an opening scene.

Keith McCafferty's first novel is a complicated mystery involving infected fish in Montana's fly fishing rivers. This tale is as much about fishing as it is about catching a killer.

Sean Stranahan, fisherman/artist/sort of private detective, is hired by the beautiful, mysterious Velvet Lafayette to find a particular spot where her father fished so she can scatter his ashes there.

Stranahan's efforts soon introduce him to Sheriff Martha Ettinger as she investigates the fisherman's death. And Stranahan starts chasing a few leads of his own as the two cases show connections.

The danger grows, the relationships become more complex, and “The Royal Wulff Murders” just gets better.

McCafferty's love of fishing and of Dashiell Hammett novels is obvious, and a bit overdone in places. The relationship between Stranahan and Lafayette shows a heavy “Maltese Falcon” influence, and the book is more enjoyable when McCafferty doesn't channel Hammett quite so much.

On the whole, “The Royal Wulff Murders” is a keeper, and it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with next.