Tag Archives: FBI

Another Maine Wilderness Mystery

PercipicecoverI’m a fan of mystery writer Paul Doiron and feel as if I discovered him (after all, I was one of the first to read his Edgar Award finalist novel The Poacher’s Son and recommend it to my mystery loving friends.) His latest work, The Precipice, takes us to the Hundred Mile Wilderness area of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Two young women have gone missing, so heroic game warden Mike Bowditch is called in to help with Search and Rescue, interrupting a romantic vacation planned with his new girlfriend, wildlife biologist, Stacey Stevens. During the search, Bowditch is teamed up with a legendary AT hiker “Nonstop” Nissen, who is fit but misantrhopic volunteer with a shady past. When the girls fail to turn up, it looks more and more doubtful they will be found alive. Meanwhile, those who encountered the girls along the trail are telling stories with varying degrees of relation to the truth. Tensions mount when their bodies are found at the bottom of a precipice, torn apart by wild coyotes. The townspeople and hikers spin out of control in a witch hunt to eradicate the coyotes, but meanwhile, Bowditch has his hunch it was human, not canine, that caused their deaths. The book comes to an exciting man hunt conclusion, rife with backwoods violence.

What I particularly enjoy in all of Doiron’s novels is the wild and terrible beauty of backwoods Maine. He paints a realistic scene of both the poverty, ignorance and squalor along with the natural landscape and breathtaking wilderness. The beauty of nature is often juxtaposed with the ugliness of life. In this story, his description of the life and culture of the Appalachian Trial day and thru-hikers is fascinating and a colorful backdrop. His treatment of the life of a game warden is handled well, especially when describing the frustration of working with FBI, local police and sheriff’s office during an investigation, illustrating the limitations of his powers. This story kept me guessing to the end (and not wanting to reveal any spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) I did not, however, feel as if the motivation for the perp was sufficiently explored. Also, Doiron has his fun with several misguided preachers in the story, casting them in a very poor light. Some of the tale hinges on the possible motive of a hate crime, when it is revealed that the “Bible student” girls were secretly lesbians. This part of the story feels a bit artificial and forced in order to play against the moral certitudes of these two-dimensional self righteous preachers. Another thing I felt was missing from the end of the story was the reaction of the parents. The girls both have powerful parents who fly into Maine to oversee the search efforts. We get a glimpse of them with the impression they will continue to cause problems for law enforcement, especially when it is revealed that the girls were a couple, but then they drop from the picture.  Lastly, I did not enjoy the character of Stacey, Bowditch’s new love interest. I felt she was unnecessarily erratic, cold to the point of being cruel at times, and generally unloveable. It was hard to believe he would see anything in her.

Overall, as always, Doiron delivered a great story sprinkled through with beautiful descriptions of the Maine landscape.

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Spies Writing Spy Novels

I picked up Jeanne Kinkade’s novel “The Zero Line” based on two factors that intrigued me: one, at least part of the novel was set in Ellicott City, Maryland,GetSmart and environs which is familiar to me and two, in her biography she is a self-confessed former intelligence agent who worked at the National Security Agency (NSA).  She goes on to boast that she has worked closely with other three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) and written think pieces on troublesome intelligence questions, such as the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden (before his capture.) So, when I read the plot synopsis featuring an exciting turn of events in Pakistan, I was on-board for a spy thrill ride.  Sadly, her plot and characters did not live up to (my) expectations.  The story opens with a married couple, Polly and Mitch McKenna, uncovering a mysterious hidden compartment in an old clock purchased in Ellicott City.  A series of events leads them to believe the clock’s former owner was involved in double-agent activities during the Cold War.  A second spy-themed plot line involves a Pakistani extremist planning to kidnap and kill a Marine and release sarin in a crowded city.  All potentially very exciting but the story does not deliver.  The author gives us some hints about our main characters–Polly and Mitch–but fails to fully develop them so that they come off as two-dimensional and I, as a reader, found that I did not care a whole lot about what happened to them.  Polly is supposedly a former intelligence field officer, but her husband doesn’t know it.  I found it a bit hard to believe because she comes across as a nitwit sometimes;– for example, a major storm is raging across her town and she waits until the transformer blows before locating a flashlight.  The author also never follows up on this thread of her former employment.  Mitch has his troubles as well.  He is suffering crippling guilt over an unexplained incident which resulted in the deaths of fellow marines.  This guilt is sabotaging his marriage, but neither the original incident nor how the couple overcomes it is sufficiently explored.  Also, at the end of the book two former Marine friends facing life-threatening circumstances lapse into an unrealistic joking banter a la buddy action movies such as Die Hard.  I can believe making a few wise cracks under pressure, but this felt out of step with the seriousness of the rest of the story.  My other disappointment was that I was expecting much more insider intelligence descriptions and know-how…I wanted a lot more technical wiz-bang from a former NSAer.  There was no real spycraft to speak of in the story.  That being said, the author did a good job describing Pakistan–particularly the congested city of Peshawar and the desolate high mountain regions and FATA.  The locale added a great deal to the story and I believe one of the strongest scenes in the book was one involving a reluctant extremist setting off a chemical weapon within a crowded cyber cafe, describing his conflicted emotions and regret.  It looks like Kinkade has a sequel planned, and that may close some gaps.  The first book was attractively produced with a nice cover, but had some editing problems including strange characters in the e-book version.

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Weather as Character

cjboxAfter reading “Inherit the Dead,” a mystery written by a compilation of famous mystery writers, I decided to pick up a book by one author whose writing really stood out: C.J. Box.  I chose one of his earlier novels, Winterkill.  In the story, his main character, a Wyoming game warden named Joe Pickett, becomes involved in a gruesome murder of a federal agent just as a winter storm is descending on his small, Wyoming town.  The murder, concurrent with the arrival of a group of anti-government reactionaries, draws a particularly bizarre and unbalanced Forestry Service agent to the small town along with some unsavory FBI thugs.  The agent, Melinda Strickland, is hell-bent on conducting a raid on the reactionaries encampment and finds the truth an inconvenient detail when faced with it.  The situation becomes personal when Joe realizes his foster daughter has been abducted, and is likely being held at the camp, directly in the line of fire as federal and local law enforcement converge for an attack.  Think Waco and Ruby Ridge.  C.J. Box draws a vivid picture of the West and its people, but his true strength lies in his portrayal of nature, the wildlife of the mountains, the independ-minded people, and the dangerous beauty of the impending storm.  He reminded me a great deal of another writer who has made the setting a character in his novels: Paul Doiron, who writes about Maine and also has a main character who is a game warden. (See earlier post called Capturing the Male Reader for a review of Doiron’s Bad Little Falls.) In Winterkill, Box explores the theme of protection as the character struggles with his guilt over not being able to protect his daughter.  His sense of leaving her exposed to danger is symbolized by the trees exposed, resulting in winterkill, when the storm hits.  The plot, albeit a tad contrived at times, has enough twists to keep a reader engaged and the characters are well drawn, with the exception of perhaps the villianess. The over-the-top strangeness and cold-heartedness of Melinda Strickland was a bit unbelievable more often than not, but she made a satisfactory “love to hate her” bad gal.  Overall, a satisfying read and apropos on the eve of the snow expected here in the next twenty-four hours. Certainly hope it is nothing like the blizzard in this novel.  winterkill

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