Sydney Duncombe, a professor at the University of Idaho, spent an extremely influential quarter-century teaching young Idahoans about government and politics, not just the theory but also the practice. That mattered to Idaho because so many of his students, like former Governor and Senator Dirk Kempthorne and former Senator Larry Craig, went on to leadership positions in Idaho.
Over the years he wrote a few newspaper columns and a kind of practical guide to Idaho government, but his larger-scale view of Idaho – where it was going, what concerns he had – were a little obscure. What did he take away from so many decades of intensive study about the state?
Some of his ideas now are on display in three little-seen and little-known novels he wrote near the end of his life, between 1999 and 2002, which now are being republished. (Disclosure: I’m the publisher.)
These are fictional stories, cast as thrillers – you could safely call them entertaining page-turners – but they are set in Idaho and clearly draw on Duncombe’s understanding of the state.
In the first, The Unlikely Candidate, the hero is a retired state budget director. (Duncombe himself held that position in 1971.) It’s a murder mystery and a thriller about a massive scandal in Idaho government, but it moves through a wide range of people and interests around the state. As a professor, Duncombe’s trademark tactic was to impersonate (while wearing any of a number of hats) people from a range of interest groups, and point up how they interact, cooperate or conflict with each other. Much of this forms the narrative bed of The Unlikely Candidate. Idaho, in other words, is complex, and more complex than it seems on the surface. A more subtle point is a reminder that bureaucrats too can be heroes; he would not have disagreed with such a sentiment.
The second, Blizzard in August, is the story is about several groups of people hiking in the White Clouds (a place Duncombe also frequented); all stranded by a sudden and early snowstorm. Duncombe knew the area and the circumstances well enough to describe them carefully; he was once caught by a freak early blizzard in that region himself. But the story centers more on questions of personal responsibility, and the responsibilities we have to other people, including to people we do not know. It lightly touched on politics, but the greater implications were directed more toward all of us; not just governmental officials.
Last of the three was Freedom County, also a thriller but one that approaches dystopian fiction. In it, a central Idaho county (presumably Custer from the description, though no real name is given) is taken over by extremist and racist militia, and then its leaders launch a plot to reshape Idaho government along their preferred lines. A cautionary tale, then, and while Duncombe’s telling rolls right along as a good thriller should, his meaning and message is clear: This is bad news, there are worrisome signs pointing in this direction, and don’t let it happen here.
I felt a slight chill when reading it.
Duncombe died in 2004, and maybe if he’d lived longer he would have written more novels on Idaho. These three, in any event, are the three messages he most basically leaves behind.
All three could not be more pertinent a decade and a half later.