This article was published in Volume 29, No. 1 edition of Mystery Readers Journal.
Taking a break with Eli in The Flat Tops Wilderness
There I was on a big, black beautiful mule. His name was Eli. His character ran against type—he was energetic. He liked his ears rubbed a certain way. He was the only mule in our group. Everybody else was on a horse since, in fact, this was a horseback ride. But I felt lucky to be on a mule. He and I were getting along great, although I’m not sure Eli cared.
It was a small group of riders, maybe eight or so including my wife. We were high up in the Flat Tops Wilderness in western Colorado and it was one of those pristine alpine days in the late summer. The skies were gracious. And spacious.
That’s when I realized—many years ago—that everything I needed for my next mystery novel was right there, literally, at my feet.
I had finished writing two mysteries and was looking around for a third idea. I had found good New York agents for both projects, but no deals had come through.
To that point, I had been seduced by the city. By cops. By detectives. By urban streets and urban mayhem. I came to mysteries through Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and I liked the darker stuff too, like Patricia Highsmith. Tom Ripley was fascinating. Sure, The Talented Mr. Ripley is great, but have you ever read Ripley Under Ground? Spooky stuff. Anyway, I liked the noir-ish, psychological stuff. I associated mysteries with cities.
But here I was on the mule in the Flat Tops Wilderness and I suddenly realized, like a breath of fresh air, that I had been overlooking the big outdoors.
This idea came into sharper focus when our leader that day let it slip, almost casually, that she was also a hunting guide. Yes, she. A hunting guide.
She was bright, articulate, enthusiastic, tough and clearly knew how to take charge. During our day of mule- and horseback riding, she could answer every single question us city dwellers could muster. Cloud formations, geology, flora, fauna, weeds, insects, amphibians, fishing, hiking, camping—there was no question she didn’t appear to find interesting and worthy of a detailed answer worthy of a college student.
And she loved the Flat Tops. Deeply loved. She made us love it, too. I pictured her leading hunters deep into the woods to track elk or deer. I pictured the contrast of her hanging out with big backwoods men who have been stewing around their canvas wall tents in-between hunts. I imagined the campfires, the smoking, the bourbon, the male bonding and bad jokes. And I pictured her. What a contrast, I thought. What a terrific contrast.
The Allison Coil character started taking shape. And so did the plot.
Because the Allison Coil would have as much passion for the Flat Tops as the hunting guide who inspired her, the plot had to revolve around her efforts to protect the wilderness. Some outside force had to be meddling with her precious world—and she would have to find a way to save it or at least protect it from outside forces.
I thought of two extremes.
On the one hand, poachers. Not just roadside poachers who plunk a deer a night, but big-time poachers who rig hunts for wealthy clients wanting to minimize the fuss and maximize the take.
On the other hand, animal rights activists trying to put an end to the hunt itself.
This, after all, is the era of New West vs. Old West, when environmental issues are tense and politically ticklish, when one lifestyle (city dwellers who ski and hike mountains and want to protect the wilderness) are rubbing up against old-timers who are more prone to mine, dam, drill and harvest.
In parts of Colorado, Subaru-driving, organic-gardening do-gooders are treated like an invasive species. In other parts, they co-exist peacefully. Some towns have completely been given over to New West thinking and they thrive.
But there’s always tension—genuine environmental tension over jobs, the definition of “growth,” and the value of protecting vast tracts of land for future generations.
Putting all these thoughts into my storyboard, the result was Antler Dust, published in 2007. (It was a Denver Post best-seller in 2007 and again in 2009 and has done well).
Looking for a follow-up theme, I turned back to the environment and started researching a new—and controversial—technique for extracting natural gas from the rocky substrata of Western Colorado.
I brought the controversy over fracking to a hunting camp in the Flat Tops Wilderness. I put Allison Coil into the thick of things when a seasoned, local hunter turns up dead in one of her camps during a cold snap in October. The result, Buried by the Roan, was a 2012 finalist for the Colorado Book Award. (The third book is complete and awaiting a publication announcement. This time, Allison Coil will deal with bad guys who want to shape the human environment.)
Eli liked his ears scratched a certain way.
Like the woman who inspired her, Allison Coil is no tree-hugging zealot. She sees balance and seeks balance. But she has no problem helping track down bad guys (or women) and making them pay.
To my tastes, environmental mysteries don’t need to preach. They only need to show the reader around, give the reader a tour of the issues through the eyes of the main character and see what’s at stake, help examine how we are connected to our surroundings, in one way or another.
And, yes, to answer your question. I gave Eli a bit part in all three books. He deserved it.