There never was a more engaging pair of psychopaths than Charlie and Eli Sisters, two brothers who kill for hire—and for necessity, and sometimes for the pure, amusing hell of it. The novel opens in 1851 and, if the Sisters are crazy, so is the entire West Coast of America, caught up in a fever of gold lust and violence. Working for a mysterious tycoon known as the Commodore, the brothers set out from Oregon to kill Hermann Kermit Warm at his San Francisco-area mining claim. Warm has stolen something from the Commodore, or so older brother Charlie—who really couldn’t care less—tells narrator Eli, who desperately needs his victims to be guilty of something.
On their meandering and blood-soaked journey south, Eli spends a lot of time pondering matters of guilt and innocence, and memories of the Sisters’ abusive childhoods. But he’s also concerned with whether he might be able to find true love if only he could lose some weight, and about the virtues of the newfangled teeth-cleaning powder a dentist gives him. (Eli’s overwhelming desire to be clean in every way is one of the most endearing things about him.) Eventually, the brothers discover Warm and why the Commodore wants him dead, and nothing thereafter is the same for them.
So subtle is DeWitt’s prose, so slyly note-perfect his rendition of Eli’s voice in all its earnestly charming 19th-century syntax, and so compulsively readable his bleakly funny western noir story, that readers will stick by Eli even as he grinds his heel into the shattered skull of an already dead prospector. The man had been poking Eli with a rifle; that, and the fact Charlie killed him before his brother had a chance to, put Eli into a rage. The prospector had been acting like a bully, “and this is the one thing,” Eli explains, “that makes me unreasonable.” By that point in the story, enmeshed as we are in the Sisters’ deranged world, Eli sounds entirely reasonable.