The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty

the-royal-wulff-murdersThe Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty
Series: Sean Stranahan series #1
Genre: Mystery
Setting: Montana
Published by Viking, 2012
Library book
352 pages
Grade: B+
Synopsis: A clever and fast-paced murder mystery full of wit, suspense, and fly fishing.

When a fishing guide reels in the body of a young man on the Madison, the Holy Grail of Montana trout rivers, Sheriff Martha Ettinger suspects foul play. It’s not just the stick jammed into the man’s eye that draws her attention; it’s the Royal Wulff trout fly stuck in his bloated lower lip. Following her instincts, Ettinger soon finds herself crossing paths with Montana newcomer Sean Stranahan.

Fly fisher, painter, and has-been private detective, Stranahan left a failed marriage and lackluster career to drive to Montana, where he lives in an art studio decorated with fly-tying feathers and mouse droppings. With more luck catching fish than clients, Stranahan is completely captivated when Southern siren Velvet Lafayette walks into his life, intent on hiring his services to find her missing brother. The clues lead Stranahan and Ettinger back to Montana’s Big Business: fly fishing. Where there’s money, there’s bound to be crime.

In Sean Stranahan’s philosophy of life, any man who had a fly rod, a quarter tank of gas, and four decent tires was never too far from home.


The rainbow marked the end of a story that had begun nearly nine months ago and he was reluctant to open his hand. Trout are the ghosts of moving waters, gone like the dreams one longs to remember. When this one glimmered away, he felt as if he’d caught smoke or that it had never been there in the first place.

Initial impressions

  • I love the Montana setting with fly fishing, the beautiful outdoors and rivers and the dichotomy of the people who flock to the Montana rivers for the fishing–some who have vacation homes in Montana, but only spend a few weeks every year in the state–and those who live year round and try to make a living in Montana.

The story

  • When a body is found in a popular fly fishing river the sheriff wonders if the young man is a victim of accidental drowning or murder.
  • Sean Stranahan is a painter, but not selling too many paintings. He’s recently come to Montana from New England and he’s living in his studio. He was a private detective in New England so his studio door is marked with both “Blue Ribbon Watercolors” and “Private Investigations.”
  • Velvet Lafayette walks into Sean’s office and hires him to find her father’s fishing spot. And keep his eye out for her brother. Sean asks her for her brother’s description since he has heard about the drowned fisherman. The two descriptions don’t match.
  • Sheriff Ettinger questions Sean while he’s out fishing when she and her deputies are questioning fishermen who might have seen something along the river where the young man died.
  • Later Sean is fishing with the fishing guide who found the body when someone shoots the guide. Sean manages to save the guide’s life and meets up again with Sheriff Ettinger.
  • They investigate these events from two different directions.


  • I enjoyed this book partly because I grew up living in the U.S. West and loving the outdoors, but I don’t think you have to be familiar with those aspects of the book to enjoy this story.
  • When Velvet Lafayette walks into Sean’s life I felt a flash of the hard-boiled detective story such as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon where the femme fatale leads the detective on. Velvet has a rather bizarre story and it’s hard to know if she’s telling the truth.
  • The story revolves around trout, fly fishing and rivers in Montana. I loved all the outdoor scenes and writing. I grew up camping and fishing with my family in Oregon. My Dad tied his own flies so I relate to the fly tying and fishing.
  • The Royal Wulff fly (which you can see on the cover of the book) is a dry-fly pattern originally tied by Lee Wulff in the 1930’s and still used by fishermen today. It resembles a number of different types of mayflies. I like the authenticity that Mr. McCafferty uses without making the book boring.
  • The book also features Sheriff Martha Ettinger who has fought her way to the top of her profession. Along with her department she investigates the death of the young man found in the river. She’s a great character to read about. We see only a little of the woman behind the sheriff and I like that.
  • The characters are well-written and varied. We have both the sheriff’s and Sean’s points-of-view and since they are coming at things from two different directions that makes the story interesting as I wondered where their investigations would converge.
  • I love the humor in the story. In the first paragraph: “The client, whose largest trout to date had been the size of a breakfast sausage, reared back as if to stick a tarpon.” That sets the stage for lots more humor!
  • I like Keith McCafferty’s writing a lot. I think an outdoorsman and writer like Mr. McCafferty is something of a philosopher and I find some of that in his writing along with a great story.


  • There might be too much “fish” talk for some readers, but I think the book is worth reading through that even if you don’t like fishing.

And concluding thoughts . . .

  • I’m ready to read more books by Mr. McCafferty! I’ve bought the second book in the series and hope to read it soon. The fourth book in the series–Crazy Mountain Kiss–comes out in June 2016.

Have you read this book? How did you like it?

Author info

  • As well as being a novelist for Viking/Penguin Books, Keith McCafferty is the Survival and Outdoor Skills Editor of Field & Stream. He has written articles for publications as diverse as Fly Fishekeith-mccaffertyrman Magazine, Mother Earth News, Gray’s Sporting Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and on subjects ranging from mosquitoes to wolves to mercenaries and exorcism. Based in Montana and working on assignment around the globe–he recently spent a month in India trekking the Himalayas, fishing for golden mahseer and studying tigers–Keith has won numerous awards, including the Robert Traver Award for angling literature. He has twice been a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

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