The setting of the main action In The Devil’s Backbone, the third novel in Robert Greer’s CJ Floyd series, is in the area of the hogback referred to as “the Devil’s Backbone.” It is an ugly, brutal rock formation in Larimer County, Colorado that CJ’s uncle described as “a modern-day gargoyle, strategically placed at the mouth of the canyon to warn all who entered to beware.”
Hambone Dolbey, an ex-bull rider who mentored Morgan Williams, is found dead in a water trough dressed in a wet suit at the Greeley Stampede. Morgan and his friend Dittier Atkins ask the bounty hunting bail bondsman, CJ Floyd, to find the killer. CJ knows the two old rodeo cowboys don’t have the money to pay him. But because they once saved his life, he takes the case. I won’t spoil the story by telling you how they paid him, which surprised CJ and me.
CJ’s main adversaries in this adrenalin pulsating novel are Whitaker Rodgers, President of Pandeco Oil and Gas Company, his mother Virginia Rodgers, CEO of the company, and his girl friend Evelyn Coleman, chief engineer. Hambone had an arrangement with Whitaker Rodgers for an easement across Hambone’s property in the area around The Devil’s Backbone to where Whitaker believed diamonds were located on Pandeco property. Unknown to CJ, another player is Hambone’s son Aaron Baptiste and his mother Rebecca, whom Hambone got pregnant when she was a 15-year-old groupie. The final showdown between CJ and his many adversaries near The Devil’s Backbone increases the adrenalin high for CJ, Flora Jean, and the reader.
Bounty hunting becomes very dangerous when the hunter becomes the prey. Celeste Deepstream begins stalking CJ after he returns her bond-skipping twin brother Bobby Two-shirts to jail. CJ doesn't take seriously Bobby’s warning that Celeste will get even with him until an unknown assailant attacks him in his garage.
In addition to looking over his shoulder for Celeste and investigating Hambone’s death, CJ has to deal with Sheriff Carlton Pritchard whom he remembers from the time the sheriff helped take down a group of ecoterrorists. Sheriff Pritchard warns him not to interfere in the Hambone case. When Hambone’s girlfriend Nadine Kemp is killed, CJ thinks the two deaths are connected. Sheriff Pritchard again warns him not to interfere. Of course CJ doesn’t heed the warnings.
Meanwhile, CJ also deals with two personal problems not connected to the case. While his Puerto Rican secretary Julie is studying for her bar examination, she hires a six-foot, black female ex-marine named Flora Jean Benson to work as his secretary. His biggest worry, however, is how to explain to his girl friend Mavis that he has to postpone their vacation to New Mexico.
The novel has one glaring flaw. Neither CJ nor Sheriff Pritchard investigates why Hambone who was afraid of going into the water was wearing a wetsuit. If they had done so, they might have discovered the motive for the murder early on in the investigation. This failure of the investigators and their author do not spoil the enjoyment of the tight, action-filled plot.
Like most black crime fiction writers, Greer shows the history of black folks in the part of the country where his stories take place. In The Devil’s Backbone, he mentions Myrtis Dightman who “In 1966…became the first black cowboy to qualify for the Professional Rodeo Association National Finals.” Hambone was a contemporary of Dightman’s.