Torrey House Press, LLC: Salt Lake City, UT
The second entry in Scott Graham’s “National Park Mystery” series, featuring contract archaeologist Chuck Bender, includes many of the same elements that made his initial Canyon Sacrifice such a delight to read. This time the mystery is set in Rock Mountain National Park in Colorado and the author’s ability to paint a narrative picture of that beautiful part of the country continues to be a real strength of the series.
Once again, the archaeology rings true as Chuck Bender has agreed to lead a field school of students in historical archaeology from Fort Lewis College in Durango as a favor to his old mentor, Professor Ernesto Sartore. He hires Kirina, a brilliant young Ph.D. candidate from Northern Arizona University, and his long-time assistant, Clarence Ortega, who is also his brother-in-law as supervisors of the two student teams. The dig site is the abandoned Cordero Mine, located on the east flank of the fictional Mount Landen in the Mummy Mountain Range near Estes Park. The field school first excavates a collapsing mining shack and then some 200 feet of tunnel in the side of Mount Landen. The realities of excavation are realistically portrayed, including the mind-numbing tedium that accompanies a dig resulting in few noteworthy discoveries.
The narrative also continues Chuck’s struggles to adapt to the roll of husband to a lovely and fiery young wife and father to her two rambunctious grade school daughters—after nearly half a lifetime spent as a confirmed bachelor. His mis-steps and well-intentioned blunders as he picks his way through this domestic minefield seem to have a ring of truth one to them.
The field school is within three days of winding up when things begin to go sideways in traumatic fashion. A massive spill of blood, which proves to be human, is found adjacent to one of the student dormitories, and Clarence’s knife is found in context to the stain; a student nearly dies falling into a vertical shaft in the Cordero Mine; and one of the young summer help is found near the student dorm with her throat brutally cut. The field school participants, along with Kirina and Clarence—and Chuck himself become prime suspects for the Estes Park Police investigators. What follows is a wild adventure as Chuck struggles to vindicate his archaeology crew and perhaps solve the mystery of the slain summer worker, and in so doing finds himself embroiled in the world of wild game poachers, lost gold mines, and decades-old passions and hatreds.
There are a number of plot elements that detract from this second effort by the author. As was the case in Canyon Sacrifice, the major protagonists—both heroes and villains—continue to make unbelievably bad decisions and choices. And Chuck is the worst of them. Some of his decisions needlessly put either himself or his loved ones in incredibly precarious situations, or needlessly puts him afoul of the law. This might be forgiven in an adolescent, but not in a forty-something-year-old—and certainly not in a forty-something-year-old archaeologist!
More serious perhaps is a lapse in professional ethics by Chuck as it pertains to one of the inter-related plotlines. Chuck is described as a well-respected and admired member of the archaeology profession and yet this episode has him demonstrating an unbelievably cavalier attitude toward human remains.
Two trowels for the otherwise admirable Mountain Rampage.