Daniel James Brown – The Boys in the Boat

The-boys-in-a-boatThe Boys in the Boat is in that same feel-good zone with The Wright Brothers and Seabiscuit and Unbroken and name your big sweeping All-American, go-get-‘em, against-all-odds kind of saga underscored with a healthy dose of patriotism. Check the reviews on this one—fully 95 percent of Amazon readers rate this four or five stars with the clock at 16,000 reviews and ticking.

That’s a lot of cheerleading already but hand me a megaphone—The Boys in the Boat is terrific. It’s a lesson in teamwork at the highest level–nine guys with one mission. It’s a lesson in coaching. With its Depression-era backdrop, it’s a lesson in sacrifice and hard work. And it’s also a lesson in drive and hope and persistence.

I think you get the picture. I went into this knowing nothing about rowing, except admiring the crews out on The Charles River in Boston, near where I grew up. So I learned something from The Boys in The Boat about the coxswain’s role and the tricky physics of boat construction, and how rowers are developed, positioned on the boat, trained (endlessly and in all weather) and conditioned. I also had no idea that competitive rowing was once such a thing, live radio broadcasts and all.

The Boys in the Boat story follows the scrappy disheveled motley crew of underdogs from the University of Washington as they first bite the ankles of those elite rowing teams from snobbier, wealthier schools back east (as well as pesky rivals from out west) and then prove their worth at the 1936 Olympics, right under Hitler’s nose. At every turn, the crew faced a challenge from fundraising to boat repairs to a sick crew member and a last-minute flip flop in the rules that yanked away the preferred lane assignment they had earned when the medal was on the line.  Setback after setback, odds are stacked and then stacked higher and here they come, the steady-rowing perfectionists from Washington State.

But the “boys” in the boat could have easily just been titled “the boy in the boat” or “Joe Rantz and The Husky Clipper.” The story’s primary focus is hard-luck Joe and his personal struggles, both on the crew and with his personal life. And it turns the cedar shell into a living, breathing character all its own.  As the crew makes progress under the watchful eye of coach Al Ulbrickson, Daniel James Brown  manages to keep our eyes on the rise of Hitler and makes sure we know precisely the kind of environment the boys were entering when they finally reached Berlin.

Predictable? A bit. Repetitive? Here and there. A bit glossy? Perhaps. But with writing is as smooth as a morning row on calm water, The Boys in the Boat will take you out for a memorable, interesting cruise.


Mike McPhee – Dana Crawford, 50 Years Saving the Soul of A City

Dana Crawford CoverWhen I was hired by the Rocky Mountain News in 1980, editor Michael Howard started me right out of the chute by assigning a series on the future of downtown Denver. No time on night cops or general assignment—he just tossed me right into the big issues he cared about.

He also gave me a list of people to interview. Right near the top was Dana Crawford. At the time, Larimer Square was already a compelling corner of downtown Denver. (But you rarely ventured much further west, unless it was to eat pizza at the Wazee Supper Club, then under the dark shadows of a viaduct).

I went to interview Dana Crawford with no preconceptions but found an earnest, articulate, passionate woman with a keen business savvy and a cool, straightforward demeanor.  At least, that’s my recollection. Over the years as I went on to cover City Hall and developments downtown, I had many more encounters and chats with Dana and learned more about her.

But now, after reading Mike McPhee’s biography Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City, I realized that I could have learned much, much more.

Beautifully designed and written with an effortless style, this is a must-read biography for anyone who has watched downtown transform itself from functional and straightforward (and relatively boring at night) to complex and layered (and fairly busy at night).

It’s hard to remember—but there was once precious little nightlife. No brewpubs. Few art galleries. No Coors Field, no RiverPoint. No LoDo, no Tattered Cover or hip vibe. And it was a true novelty if you lived downtown.

Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City makes a convincing case that it all started with Dana’s keen desire to preserve (and upgrade) Larimer Square, once a forgotten leftover—used and worn and chewed up. Crawford bought up and transformed the 1400 block of Larimer St., all based on her keen awareness for how people congregate in public spaces and how large-scale developments can dehumanize the city environment.

As McPhee makes clear in a highly detailed but easy to read narrative—including a thorough look at Crawford’s pre-Denver youth and college life—it wasn’t an easy struggle. Crawford faced many hurdles, including the stealthy effort to assemble the Larimer Square properties and organize them under one umbrella firm, the campaign to encourage broader recognition of LoDo as “historic” (a step as critical to downtown Denver’s look and feel today as any new sports stadium or building DIA) and upgrading facilities like Oxford Hotel, once a “bare light bulb” place, to something hip and trendy.

Twice the efforts to save the Oxford Hotel dragged her into bankruptcy but she carried on—bringing her redevelopment touch to an old flour mill, a mattress factory and finally to Union Station (now drawing national praise for its overhaul).

“We knew that without Dana Crawford, there would be no Wynkoop brewery. That building wouldn’t be standing; someone would have torn it down,” says Governor John Hickenlooper, the former owner of the brewpub that spearheaded development in a new corner of LoDo—at a time (1989, 1990) when customers had to walk past many blocks of vacant warehouses to reach the restaurant pouring beer made on the premises, then a new concept for Colorado. “All those beautiful buildings would have been knocked over. Dana had the foresight and the appreciation of what those buildings had to offer that no else at the time seemed to have.”

Dana Crawford—50 Years Saving the Soul of A City is beautifully rendered and the assembly of all the detail (the index alone is six pages) was a yeoman’s effort. McPhee, a longtime reporter, writes with a natural, easy-going style and clearly poured years of work into the final narrative.

The design by Judy Anderson has a fun feel of an elegant scrapbook. The design is helped by careful selection of many knock-out historical photos along with sharp photography and design contributions from Melanie Simonet.  Veteran reporter Jeff Leib edited the book, which was assembled with polish and care.

Dana Crawford stood up to the steamrollers and bulldozers—the forces were in place to scrape-and-skyscraper every potential site with indifferent concrete and glass. Other cities lost similar battles, Denver did not.

So next time you’re poking around Larimer Square or LoDo or the Central Platte Valley, stop in the brewpub of your choice and hoist a frosty mug to Dana Crawford. And Mike McPhee.





Ron Carlson – Return to Oakpine

Return to OakpineReturn to Oakpine starts with opening up a room, a “classic, one-bay garage.” The room is “wooden frame, plank walls, wooden shingles, peaked roof, a one-paned window with a layer of dust on it thick as speckled paint, and a little side door.”

This is the room where Craig Ralston, Jimmy Brand, Frank Gunderson and Mason Kirby had practiced “a hundred afternoons that fall,” long ago, in 1969.

And now the bay door to the one-bay garage won’t open. It’s thirty years later. Craig is with Jimmy Brand’s mother and just finding out that Jimmy Brand is coming back to town and the bay door is stuck. “His hand came away rust. They went to the side door, but that handle was locked solid, and she told him the key was long gone. Through the grimy glass Craig could see the dark space was full of stuff. Mrs. Brand was standing back from the edifice, her arms folded. The look of worry on her face promised to get worse.”

The band was called Life on Earth—classic rock ‘n’ roll. (At least, Life on Earth was one of their names.) “They had lasted one year, until graduation, when they flew apart like leaves in the wind.”

Craig had gone into the army and to Vietnam. Mason went to Minnesota for college. Frank had spent a year at school in Laramie before running the Sears Outlet. And Jimmy Brand had disappeared.

And now, in Return to Oakpine, the wind is blowing them back together.

In Ron Carlson’s three-dimensional, straightforward prose, this quartet of Wyoming men come back together with so much in common and so much that’s not. Does this sound like a recipe for sentiment? An opportunity for melodrama? If you know Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal and others) and his masterful way with words, you know he runs hard in the other direction.

For me, Ron Carlson writes like a calmed-down John Updike. He puts words together less like a fancy gymnast doing stylish gyrations and more like a veteran runner out for a cruise. “Three hours later, driving the late summer twilight, Mason could sense a fence along the old highway, a fence he knew, and then ruined tower of the abandoned wood water tank along the railroad tracks off to the right, so old now it wasn’t photographed anymore, an artifact he knew from fishing trips with his father when he was five and six; it told him when they were almost out of town. Now the prairie still glowed, and he could see the empty shacks popping up on each side of the highway, places so desolate it would be hard to last a season in any, and the creatures who had lived there had been gone longer than Mason, and then the failed equipment yards, the broken fences and derelict vehicles and trailers, welcome home, and the lights now ahead of his hometown twinkling feebly as if unsure they would last the night.”

The four men are gently contrasted. Two of the four chose to return early on in life to their hometown; two are returning now—years later. Craig has the hardware store, Frank owns a popular bar. Mason, a Denver lawyer, returns (in his Mercedes) to repair and sell his parents’ house. And Jimmy, a writer, comes home from New York City. He’s broke and dying of AIDS. The tragic death of Jimmy’s brother, Matt, haunts them all. The red boat is still sitting there to remind them of what happened at “the reservoir” (code for the incident itself) after graduation.

For all four, Oakpine tugs at their soul in different ways. The smells, the routines, the place where they first set life plans, the place where they chased each other on the football field and played music together way back when. Oakpine is part oasis, part sanctuary—and part wellspring for burdens and source of troubles past. Rebuilding and renewal sit side by side with deterioration and rust. Because so many seminal events took place in Oakpine, or just because so many seminal moments happen in high school, Oakpine is both “then” and “now,” deeply intertwined.

Return to Oakpine is about the impact these four characters have on each other and it’s also very much about the effect that Oakpine has on them. The town might serve as place where some lives unraveled, it can also serve as place to tie things back together, to make a new chapter in your life story.

Craig helps Mason with a renovation project and Carlson writes about their work with authority and detail (a familiar Carlson motif, construction). Jimmy teaches writing to a young girl, a local. The four plan a reunion of the band. Any sense of a plot takes distant second place to the utterly human interactions among these four men and a well-populated cast of characters including women such as Craig’s conflicted wife Marci, and the aforementioned “Mrs. Brand.” The story takes a few placid turns. Carlson resists any temptation at the cheap homily or neatly sliced-and-diced morality tale. Resolution for some, questions for others.

No Big Drama—only real life, real people, real wind, familiar scents and well-known haunts. Return to Oakpine rings as real as a hammer and nail.

“This place wants to get to me,” Mason tells the real estate agent Shirley. “How can it smell the same?”

“I know,” she said. “It’s your old hometown. It’s how a hometown works.”


Previously reviewed:

The Signal

The Signal





Five Skies

Five Skies


Scott O’Connor – Untouchable

UntouchableUntouchable is unforgettable.

Written with a rich and cool-eyed empathy for its two central characters, this is one of those books that lays down its own rules for story-telling and carries the same unwavering style from first sentence to last.

Untouchable is a father-son story about loss, empathy, love, denial, disaffection, homes, families, and reputations. Set in Los Angeles prior to Y2K, the story features David Darby, a specialist in cleaning up rooms after messy deaths, and his son, The Kid. The Kid is Whitley and he has chosen not to speak as a way to manage and deal with the sudden death of his mother, and David’s wife, Lucy.

If you read no further in this review, just know that both portraits of Darby and The Kid—Untouchable is told with an alternating point of view—are deeply felt and richly told. Also know that Untouchable is rife with heartache (as well as moments of utter joy). Its sadness permeates from the pores of two very alive human beings working, on their own terms, to make their way given the grim world they face and the many puzzling questions with which they grapple.

Darby can’t shake the feeling that there is some “unfinished detail” after each job is complete. He believes he’s overlooked “a telltale sign that would betray the secret of what had happened…”

The Kid has channeled his thoughts and energies into producing a homemade comic book, Extraordinary Adventures, with his friend Matthew Crump. The star of The Kid’s comic books is Smooshie Smith, Talk Show Host of the Future, because he had a time machine and he could interview “cowboys in the Western stories, soldiers in the war stories, aliens in the outer-space stories.”

The Kid has an active, free-flowing imagination and a rich interior life, but he resists any temptation to speak, even when he’s being bullied and taunted at school, where he considers himself a “magnet for trouble.” The Kid is afraid the stories at school are true—that he has bad body odor and his breath stinks. He has convinced himself that his mother left home and his dad is lying about her death. Maybe she just left because he made his mother “sick and sad.”

The Kid worries about everything, including the end of the universe given all the brooding over Y2K. Both Darby and The Kid have constructed intricate, immense coping mechanisms. Darby starts to lose his grip on reality.

Reality, in fact, is the issue. Stories, lies, self-delusion, faith, hope, trust and basic human compassion all play a role in Untouchable. This is a rich stew of ideas and, frankly, I found The Kid one of the most compelling 11-year-olds I’ve ever met on the page. The Kid has a wise old head with an imagination that both causes him problems and gives him a path toward the light.

“The trick of the job is to forget what had happened,” explains Darby as he approaches a particularly awful crime scene mess.

Forgetting helps. So does a flipping the switch on a fogger to wipe out the smell. There are many ways to blunt the senses or stop using them altogether. Dark openings play a big role Untouchable, so does uncertainty, not knowing, not being able to peer around the next corner. Cleaning also plays a big role–including one chilling request for a “quick” second cleaning of a motel room and a spunky dog plucked from mucky, utter misery.

Untouchable is a powerful piece of grim, gritty, heartfelt fiction. I’ve never read a book like it–and that’s a good thing.


Q & A #35 – Tom Bouman, “Dry Bones in the Valley”

Idry bones in the valley met Tom Bouman at the South Dakota Festival of Books in September and I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with him and South Dakota’s extremely popular Sandra Brannan.

I had read Dry Bones in the Valley and enjoyed it. Immensely. Country noir? Maybe. You’ll see lots of comparisons in reviews to David Woodrell and I think that’s about right. Maybe Tom Franklin, too.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Tom started out the panel by reading something he’d written specifically for the occasion (I assume), a piece about hunting and walking in the woods and then shifting to a few thoughts about the pleasure of writing and the quest within.

Tom’s piece set the mood for the panel and was a highlight from a weekend of cool conversations and thoughts about books, both fiction and non.

For its elegant style alone, Dry Bones in the Valley is a cool read.  But the plot and the setting provide plenty of punch, too.  A full review follows.  At the festival, Tom graciously agreed to a Q & A and we conducted the following by email. Tom, who once worked as an editor at a publishing house, has some choice words and advice for writers, too.


Question: So I’ll start with a chatty one—and feel free to say “don’t lead the witness,” but what did you think of that very cool South Dakota Festival of Books?

Tom Bouman: It was a highlight of my year. Of all the adventures Dry Bones in the Valley has led to, the South Dakota festival was one of the most unexpected and wonderful. I only wished I’d had more time to meet more people and see more of the hills.

Question: On the panel, you talked about the elusive nature of “perfection” in writing fiction. Given the zillions of possible combinations between the imaginations of readers and writers, can there be a universal definition of perfection in writing? Care to elaborate a bit?

My fellow panelists Sandra Brannan and Tom Bouman in Deadwood, S.D.

My fellow panelists Sandra Brannan and Tom Bouman in Deadwood, S.D.

Tom Bouman: Mark, I think what you’re referring to in my portion of the panel was not the elusive nature of perfection, so much, as the elusive nature of what makes fiction feel alive. Like the book itself is alive. Does that sidestep the need for a universal definition? I think so. Actually, in fiction, perfection can often be the enemy of life. Flaws and imbalances, if they’re not merely sloppy or lazy but the result of risk or obsession, suggest the kind of deep authorial engagement that inspires writing with life. What can feel alive to one reader may not to another, but broadly speaking, within categories, it is a recognizable quality or noticeable lack within a book. To me, reading fiction without life is pointless. I probably shouldn’t reveal too many secrets of the guild, but as a book editor I began to decide on a submission based on the presence or absence of this quality within the first ten pages. And I’m not the only one.

Question: I read somewhere that you woke up one day with the voice of Henry Farrell in your head. True? Had you been thinking along those lines? Developing an idea at all? What I’m getting at is—had you been working toward finding that person?

Tom Bouman: That is absolutely true. It’s also true that I have no recollection what he said. I had not been working directly toward finding Henry, but it’s fair to say I was working indirectly, all my life: reading, absorbing experiences, listening and getting to know people.

Question: Your first-person writing style is so smooth and relaxed. Natural. There are a slew of compliments along these lines online. Since it almost feels like you’re hearing a story from Henry, I’ve got to ask—what’s your process? Do you read your manuscript out loud before you submit?

Tom Bouman: Thanks, man. Yes I do read the whole thing out loud as a final chance to revise. It removes a lot of awkwardness. Here’s another voice-related process thing: I have a century-old thesaurus on my desk, which I occasionally consult for words that can contribute to narrative voice. They have to feel natural and be immediately understandable for me to use them, and if they’re not I’ll hear it when I read it. This is not a trick I could use for just any book, but it suits Henry’s voice.

Question: Henry Farrell, in some ways, is so likable because he’s thoughtful, deliberate, contemplative at times, and cautious. Were you concerned that this wasn’t the recipe for a typical cop protagonist?

Tom Bouman: Yup. I worried that he’d bore readers. But Henry is the character I had to write, all the same, not somebody else. He’s a reflection of my belief in character as a driving force in fiction, and what I mean by that is to the extent he attracts a reader’s interest, it’s not because of some extraordinary ability or attribute or circumstance, but because of our intimate knowledge of his character, measured out over the course of the novel. Actually I get annoyed when characters have too many unique attributes or quirks, or are too good at things. Take Horatio Hornblower—he started out a bumbling midshipman, and part of the tension and pleasure of reading that series is watching him develop as a naval officer and a human being. I’d like to do the same for Henry, and you have to start somewhere.

Question: Given the setting, there’s a strong undercurrent in the story (at least to me) of isolation versus the idea of community, of working together, of connectedness through family or points of view. That’s not a question, I realize. But, care to comment?

Tom Bouman: Yeah. At the outset of writing this book, I tripped over something until I learned to embrace it: the world I write about isn’t strictly divided into criminals and upright citizens, or along political, cultural, or socioeconomic lines. It is, as you say, interconnected.

Question: The Washington Post raved about the “Dickensian” quality to your fictional population. What’s your approach to introducing new characters? It seems to me that you treat “major” and “minor” characters with the same level of detail, even if their appearance on the page is short-lived.

Tom Bouman: I’m happy you think so. I tend to know more about my characters than what appears on the page, and that’s because they have to do things, and to know what things they’re going to do, I have to know what their motivations are. And that involves digging way back into childhood, family, disappointments, joys, secrets, religions, addictions, desires, obsessions, prejudices, educations, romances, and so on. When characters aren’t treated with love and respect, it has a deadening effect on the whole work, and I really work hard to avoid that. That goes as much or more for the villains and ne’er-do-wells.

Tom Bouman

Tom Bouman

Question: You’re worked on the other side of the business, as an editor at a publishing house. What was your takeaway from the publishing business today and what’s the number one thing you’d tell new writers out there as they try and get their career going today?

Tom Bouman: One fact that I’m not sure aspiring writers understand is the sheer volume of submissions an editor sees, and the frequency with which they see essentially the same mediocre book, over and over. There is an imbalance between the hard work and courage aspiring authors summon in order to put their work out there, and the level of excitement with which it will be received by a publishing professional, and that’s too bad, but unavoidable.

So how do you get around the problem of too many books? I’ve said this elsewhere, but research is one way. Research gets you out of yourself and into a community of interest with the rest of the world. Sure, you can turn your own life into material, but if that’s what you’re doing, then you have to research that life, same as any other subject, and in some ways that seems even harder than getting out there and looking into something else. As an editor, when I received a submission that promised access to an interesting subculture or place or idea or moment in history, it went to the top of the pile.

Number two, and I’m far from the first to say this: write the book that obsesses you, that you want to write, and don’t chase trends. It’s undignified, and you’ll always be too late.

Question: I found a mention online of your praise for McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who didn’t like that book. What is it about that book? Ever tempted to write a saga that involved and sweeping?

Tom Bouman: “We don’t rent pigs.” Lonesome Dove has everything. It’s funny, sad, thrilling, philosophical, beautiful. And as violent as it is, there is an unusual feeling of innocence to it. Such a long novel and you never want it to end. I tend to think in smaller stories, but I do have a historical novel in mind about the Albany and Susquehanna railroad war, fought over access to Pennsylvania coal mines in the mid-nineteenth century. That’s somewhere down the line, and it’d be a wider focus than the Henry Farrell series. But nobody can get anywhere near Lonesome Dove.

Question: What’s next?

Tom Bouman: I’ve got two Henry Farrell books under contract, and I’m writing the second book in the series now. I’m too exited by my next idea and too protective of it to say too much, but I’m thinking of a gentle literary novel about literature, love, and grief, with some quiet supernatural elements, taking place in a mansion full of treasures, or what I’d consider to be treasures.




  • Winner of the 2015 Edgar Award, Best First Novel by An American Author
  • Winner of the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the Mystery/Thriller Category



Jump-started by a great opening line and a smooth, seamless style, Dry Bones in the Valley is a fine mystery with a slow-burn, brooding quality.

Tom Bouman’s steady prose has that easy-going style as if we’re all sitting around a campfire. Let me tell you a story.

We’re in fictional Wild Thyme Township in Holebrook County, Pennsylvania. Clans and stories run back to the Civil War and beyond. There are those who “sidestep the law, object to government, and profit off the land. Poachers of lumber and deer, burglars, rumored to be dipping toes in the drug trade, they believe they are fighting an eternal Whiskey Rebellion. As we don’t get too many high-ranking federal officials visiting, they cast me—a mere municipal officer, mind you—in the role of government tyrant.”

“Me” is Henry Farrell, the town cop. He’s stationed in the town garage with the plows and fire truck. The once quiet valley is being invaded, the “stop-start whine of machinery contending with the earth.”

As Henry tells us in the opening salvo, there will be a body and he soon finds a young man and when they find his mangled body they stare so long that the “chickadees start singing again.”

Nature is around every corner. So are the intrusions of civilization—and exploitation of the land–and the desperation of poverty, too. There’s hope (fracking money and leases to the energy companies) and despair (meth). The woods are dark and the swamps are thick—and Farrell proceeds with a dry, stone-cold sense of purpose. His department is vastly under-resourced. Having cops around, and giving them decent budgets with which to operate, are not community priorities. But Farrell plows ahead, a wary eye alert to every encounter, familiar faces and new ones, too.

One of the things I liked best about Dry Bones in the Valley is Bouman’s touch with Farrell’s first-person narration. Farrell is occasionally our tour guide but the prose never comes across as over-the-top expository. “If you’re in a mood, turning onto Old Account Road won’t cheer you up. It’s more than a dirt track that the township doesn’t maintain in the winter or any of the other seasons. Why, I don’t know. I guess there are problem a lot of people below the poverty line living on it, and people who don’t pay taxes. The road was like a creek bed; that night, you could see great ribbons of muddy water cut through it, right down the middle, exposing fins of blue shale. My shocks whined, even at ten miles an hour.”

The tug of the prose pulls you like, well, I wish Bouman was here to fill in the blank.  He’s a master at metaphor and simile.  A short beard covers the “wattle” of a man’s neck. A man pops out of waist-high cover “like a lemon seed.” The sun makes its “slow vault” across the sky. Best of all, the images show Farrell’s sharp eye for detail and ability to engage at macro and micro levels. As a reader, you will slip completely into Farrell’s likable world view. One chapter near the end starts out with a question: “Can I tell you one more thing about my wife Polly and our place in Wyoming?”

Not that Henry’s got it easy or that everything in Wild Thyme is laid-back. Hardly. The case requires every bit of Henry Farrell’s energy, but he’s not a whiner. He’s a relentless pursuer of the truth and fully aware of his situation. He knows that listening is just as important as looking. “Take more than a step a second,” he says, “and you’re not really after anything.”

Henry Farrell, who thinks in equal parts about justice and mercy, isn’t afraid to walk as slowly as possible.

(I first “read” this by listening, by the way, and the narration by Joe Barrett was fantastic. I later had to get the book to see how Tom built this memorable world on the printed page.)


Q & A #34 With Christine Carbo – “The Wild Inside”

WILD INSIDE cover imageSee that bear on the cover? And the title?

I was drawn to The Wild Inside immediately. Yes, the cover sold me. I found the book at first when I did some research on my fellow panelists at Bouchercon 2014 (last November in Long Beach). This was five or six months before the book launched.

When I got my hands on a copy of The Wild Inside earlier this year, I wasn’t disappointed. A full review follows, but you may not need it. I have a hunch that Christine’s answers to the questions will give you plenty of reason to want to read the book.


Question:  Where did you get the idea for The Wild Inside?

Christine Carbo: Actually, the idea that I wanted to write a crime fiction came first. I had taken over a ten-year break from writing after getting a divorce. I had made some job changes that made it difficult to find the energy or time for novel writing, so I put it aside and when I came back to it, I was very deliberate about picking something that I was really jazzed about. I decided that I would write what I enjoy reading most: crime-fiction.

Once I decided on that, the second step was for me to try to figure out what the heck to write about in the world of crime. I began to consider setting because so many of the mysteries that I had read were heavily steeped in a strong sense of place: Denise Mina’s Glasgow; Elizabeth George’s mysterious English countryside; Tana French’s Dublin; Dennis Lehane’s Boston, John Connelly’s Los Angeles…the list goes on. At first I thought, I just live in Montana with no sexy, dynamic, bustling cities around me. How was I supposed to write what I knew so that it was credible, but still be interesting? Then it dawned on me that I lived only a half hour from a place that people from all over the nation and the world come to visit. And that place, Glacier National Park, is not only stunning, it’s haunting at times. Plus, the area leading to Glacier is economically depressed and tends to have its share of crime. So, in essence, first came genre, second came setting, and third came plot. Automatically, when I began to think of Glacier, the awe and fear-inspiring grizzly came to mind. I began to wonder what would happen if my main character had issues with bears and the very park he needed to conduct an investigation in. Hence, The Wild Inside is as much about whether the protagonist, Ted, will find some emotional peace as it is about who committed the crime.

Question: How much research did you need to do about grizzly bear behavior before beginning to write?

Christine Carbo: Simply growing up in Northwest Montana and spending a lot of time in its woods and in Glacier has taught me quite a bit about the highly revered animal. But for the book and its intricacies, I had to read more about grizzly behavior and demographics. There is a lot of good information on the web, thanks to biologists who publish their findings and organizations such as NOROC that give access to studies.

Question: And how much research about police investigations? How did you go about it?

Christine Carbo: Some local policemen were kind enough to sit down with me and let me pick their brains. I also consulted with a ranger fully trained in law enforcement. I did take liberties with the book and included a Park Police force in Glacier. In reality, there are only rangers in Glacier who handle law enforcement issues. If there is a homicide, the county in which the crime occurs is called in, and depending on the seriousness of the crime, the feds are also consulted since it’s federal land.

Christine Carbo

Christine Carbo

Question: Why did you decide to write across-gender and use a male as your protagonist? What was the hardest part about getting inside this guy’s head?

Christine Carbo: I wasn’t as deliberate about that choice as I was about genre and setting. The character simply came to me as a male when I began envisioning the plot. My second book, which comes out in May of 2016, also features a male lead, but I am currently writing my third from both the female and the male perspectives. I didn’t think there was anything particularly hard about being in a male’s head because I wasn’t writing from a gender per se; I was writing from the perspective of a human being who had something tragic occur in the deep woods of Glacier years before. That perspective is what carried the character to a large degree, male or female. It also probably helped that I grew up with only brothers and was a single mom to a boy for years before remarrying.

Question: Are you a plotter or seat-of-the-pants writer? Did you know “who done it” before you started writing?

Christine Carbo: I am a headlights writer. E.L. Doctorow claimed that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I find this an apt metaphor for my process. I am not a highly organized person, and do not produce clean and detailed outlines, but I do like to brainstorm a bit before beginning so that when I forge ahead, I have some idea of which direction I’m heading in. I may be writing only as far as the headlights, but I want to know if I’m heading north, south, east or west. It comforts me to know that I have a small amount of direction or plot established before setting out on the long journey of a novel. For The Wild Inside, I did know who had done it; I just wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to get there.

Question: Without giving too much away, did you ever know anybody who had something happen to him or her like what happened to Ted Systead? Care to share any grizzly bear encounters?

Christine Carbo: Honestly, I’ve only known one person who actually has suffered a bear attack. He survived and has the scars to prove he was clawed. Luckily, the grizzly just wanted to scare him and didn’t go beyond a swipe or two. It’s a very serious and scary thing, but it is extremely rare, although you can’t live where I live and not hear your fair share of stories. All ears perk up whenever someone mentions a grizzly encounter. It’s very important for people to carry capsaicin bear-spray when they are in grizzly country. Not only is it illegal to shoot a grizzly, guns are often ineffective in an encounter since they usually injure the animal, but rarely stop it if it has its adrenalin and momentum going – even if you’ve hit a vital organ. Capsaicin, on the other hand, disables its senses temporarily, which stops it dead in its tracks. The propulsion of the spray is powerful, disperses in a cone shape and is not affected by wind as much as people think.

Question:  It seems to me that half the journey of The Wild Inside is what happens to Ted’s interior journey. Agree? Disagree? How did you go about interweaving the two threads?

Christine Carbo: Yes, as I mentioned above, Ted’s interior journey—how he deals with the deeply buried trauma that he’s never fully come to grips with—is a very big part of the story. Part of the suspense for the reader is simply wondering about Ted and how he’ll fare as he progresses with the investigation. Weaving the elements together was a balancing act of pace, plot and internal meanderings on Ted’s part.

Question: What’s next?

Christine Carbo: Mortal Fall, which features a character who was in The Wild Inside, comes out in May. In fact, it can already be pre pre-ordered on Amazon. It amazes me how soon books go up for pre-order! Mortal Fall features Glacier National Park as well, and the calm, methodical Monty, Ted’s assisting Park Police Officer in The Wild Inside, will lead the investigation in the beautiful, lush Glacier Park (written pre-2015 fire season!) during the summer months when it is in full swing. In some ways, readers will feel like it’s a series since Glacier – practically its own character – continues on. Both books, however, can stand alone.


More: Christine Carbo



Ted Systead has a “deep-reaching queasiness.” It’s “nothing new,” but Ted has to come to grips with one of his worst fears—dealing with grizzly bears and thinking about grizzly bears. He’s compelled to confront his issues because of a certain dead guy in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The victim has been tied to a tree. And shot. And chewed up by a griz.

Why does Ted, a special agent for the U.S. Department of the Interior, have issues with grizzlies? Because it was that particular breed of bear that dragged Ted’s father to his death. The bear had yanked him out of the same tent where he was camping, with his father, at the tender age of 14. That “feral, panic-filled night ruined my ability to see the glass as half full.”

The Wild Inside is billed as “a novel of suspense.” It is certainly that. But it is half police procedural murder mystery, set against the rugged Montana backdrop, and half interior journey for a guy who is still sorting through the agonies of the attack, still searching for “emotional freedom.” Systead knows himself well. He’s good at self-analysis and even recognizes that his “critical nature” is helpful in his work.

And when it comes to work, Systead gets down to business. The grizzly in question, from all indications, has ingested the bullet that likely took the victim’s life. The nifty plot point affords Christine Carbo the chance to walk us through lots of interesting detail about grizzly eating habits, hibernation and digestion patterns. It also gives the authorities a chance to track and capture the bear in question—and keep it around in confined quarters to taunt and remind Systead of all those painful memories. Systead, who hasn’t been back to Montana for years, keeps the memories from his cohorts and soldiers on, internalizing his conflicts.

Reading The Wild Inside, you’ll never forget where the cinematic story takes place. The landscape is ever-present. And Carbo, who lives in nearby Whitefish, takes a warts-and-all approach to showing how the locals make a living off the tourism and other industries. The scenery may be beautiful, but the life around Glacier isn’t necessarily hospitable. Or easy.

Systead is methodical. There is a missing weapon. There is a fair amount of forensic evidence to analyze along with witnesses who might be withholding some critical details. The victim was a meth head and that fact leads Systead into a world of drugs and dealing and debt. And gambling. And strained, to the say the least, relationships. Systead must sort through his own bruised history.

To understand what has happened in the crime and come to grips with his own inner chaos, The Wild Inside is a double journey of suspense that leads, in both cases, back to the heart of human nature.