Sunday, July 17, 2016

Western Crime Fiction Crosses Into Science Spec, in YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF, Scott Graham

Torrey House Press has a strong commitment to Western Lit -- and just brought out the third "National Park Mystery" from Scott Graham. Graham's previous two titles, Canyon Sacrifice and Mountain Rampage, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the noted Nevada Barr mysteries, also set in national parks. Graham's "amateur sleuth" Chuck Bender is an archaeology specialist, contracting with the nation's prestigious Western preserves to name and document the mostly early First Nations artifacts that turn up in the caves and crevices of Western terrain.

Chuck Bender's intrigue as a character includes his passion for his new Latina wife and stepdaughters. His roles as husband and father are maturing, book by book -- and so is his willingness to include Janelle and the girls directly in the action. Janelle's determined to engage this wilderness that Chuck loves and shares with her, to the extent of even taking Wilderness First Responder and Backcountry Medicine courses. That brings her into the height of the action, too, which quickly ramps up in book three, YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF, to include attacks by both animals and humans.

Charging into the crazy situation of a national park that's home to wolves and grizzlies while allowing human guests to explore the landscape, Graham's character's benefit from this author's expertise in the outdoors. The scary effects of climate change on Yellowstone (described in even more detail in "Yellowstone 2.0" by Jake Abrahamson in the July/August 2016 issue of Sierra and with historic richness in the recent Gloomy Terrors and Hidden Fires by Ronald Anglin and Larry Morris) turn out to be what's summoned Chuck Bender to the part: A vanishing glacier revealed ancient artifacts, and Chuck and his teammates need to document the find.

But perils also appear from the local wildlife as Chuck prepares to launch his investigation. The ranger in charge tells him that a local grizzly, nicknamed Notch for its ear shape, just fatally attacked two people:
Chuck scrunched his face in bewilderment. "So you think this grizzly, Notch, might be a manhunter, and you've situated your research camp in the most likely place for the bear to turn up?"

"The best outcome of all would be a safe sighting of Notch through the presence of lots of folks in a part of the park generally uninhabited by humans but well trafficked by grizzly bears, then tracking down the bear from there."

"Okay. Fine. I get it," Chuck said. "But I still can't figure out why you gave the all-clear for me to bring my wife and kids."
Good point. Of course, this is crime fiction, so it's pretty likely there's a criminal human also involved in the terrain. When Chuck finally figures out how the pieces fit together, his family is definitely at risk.

I enjoy Graham's deep familiarity with the Western terrain, as well as with archaeology and some new methods of exploring land, animals, and artifacts. YELLOWSTONE STANDOFF is a lively page-turner and it's great to see Graham's characters maturing with the series. I found the tech side of things to be a bit stretched in terms of what science can actually do with wild animals, so if you're a science type like I am, brace for a few skeptical moments. But the plot is swift and smart, the story's memorable, and the series is well worth collecting and enjoying.

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