Sunday, August 09, 2015

Western Crime Fiction, Action, Compassion, in MOUNTAIN RAMPAGE, Scott Graham

Living in northern New England, I look to the voices of established Western writers to test the premises of new crime fiction from, say, Colorado -- like MOUNTAIN RAMPAGE, the second in an exciting and ambitious series from Durango, CO, author Scott Graham. It's reassuring to find both Ann Hillerman (daughter of Tony Hillerman) and Michael McGarrity -- one my faves among the very dark Western crime fiction -- vouching for Scott Graham's work. This assurance sets me free to ride the wild action sequences in Graham's book without stopping to ask "Could this happen?" And that's great, because an abandoned mine, wildfires, shootings, and hunting-gone-wicked rock the pages of MOUNTAIN RAMPAGE and the life of the Chuck Bender, archaeologist.

You know how some forms of "cozy" or "traditional" mystery can often involve the development of love and intrigue in the investigator, often a woman, who's trying to get to the bottom of a crime? Graham's great gift as a writer is to turn the paradigm around, giving us insight into Chuck Bender's struggles as a relatively new husband and step-father within a Latina family. In fact, Chuck takes reponsability in every aspect of his work life, too: directing a summer camp of interns, watching out for the bodies and souls of young men and women on an "exotic" archaeological site, and tracking down a poacher when the local police take the evidence too lightly. It's not the best way to keep his new marriage on steady ground, though, as the local (and very feisty) research librarian points out:
"The minute I saw your wife and girls, I knew you were a lucky man." Elaine paused. "Are you sure you don't want to keep it that way?"

"What do you mean by that?"

She pointed at the baggie on the pavement beside here. "This stuff has some bad juju to it. I can feel it."

Chuck studied her. She didn't seem the type, not remotely, and yet she was talking ... as if she knew of the skeletal remains at the bottom of the mine.

"I've been lucky enough so far," Chuck said. "I'm willing to take my chances."

Elaine sighed, smoke escaping her lips. "Of course you are."
Elaine's right, and Chuck is gambling with far more than his own chances. From valuable animals to possible gold in those hills, to the lives of risk-taking teens and young adults, there's a lot at stake here. Chuck's family members also face consequences from his actions. But his agony over each wrong step makes the reading more than worthwhile, and Graham is sure-handed in both the plot twists and the growth of this intriguing amateur sleuth.

Torrey House brought out Graham's debut, Canyon Sacrifice,  last December. You don't need to read them in order, but I think the series will be more satisfying that way -- and will hint at what's ahead for Scott Graham and Chuck Bender.

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