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for people who care about the West

A Western mystery with an environmental twist: a review of Buried by the Roan

 

Buried by the Roan
Mark Stevens
346 pages, softcover: $14.95.
People’s Press, 2011.

In his second mystery novel, Buried by the Roan, Colorado writer Mark Stevens tells a “ripped from the headlines” story involving natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The story is set in and around the Roan Plateau area between Glenwood Springs and Meeker, a landscape that has seen its fair share of controversy over oil and gas development.

Protagonist Allison Coil, a hunting guide and amateur sleuth, made her debut in 2007, in Stevens’ first novel, Antler Dust. In Buried by the Roan, she investigates an elk hunter’s death in the Flat Tops Wilderness. It’s a puzzling demise that may have been caused by an outbreak of waterborne illness in the high country. But what if it wasn’t? Tough and tequila-drinking, Allison is the kind of character who would rather kick her inner ass than coddle her inner child. The independent woman in a male-dominated field has become a mainstay in the work of Western writers; witness Nevada Barr’s series starring park ranger Anna Pigeon and Sarah Andrews’ mysteries featuring geologist Em Hansen. Some may complain that the cliché-busting mountain woman has become a cliché herself. Maybe so, but when the character is as honest and appealing as Allison –– who ends a long day by downing a cold beer in a hot shower –– who cares?

Stevens, a former journalist, has an eye for well-paced narrative, vivid characters and telling details. In Buried by the Roan, slow-food advocates and a video-making survivalist with a YouTube following make appearances. There’s even a (fictional) High Country News cover story. In one key scene, two-thirds through the book, a drilling site is glimpsed through binoculars: “A hill nearby had been carved away. Acres of sagebrush and aspen had been clearcut to make room.” In a more formulaic mystery, that might foreshadow the discovery of another murder victim. Here, the earth itself is the body, carved up by assailants.

As the story unfolds, the question arises: If it’s a crime when an individual commits an act that is clearly morally wrong, what does it mean when a corporation does the same thing on a larger scale? To its credit, Buried by the Roan refuses to avoid this uncomfortable question, even as it fulfills its promise as a page-turning summer mystery read.