When I went to the bookstore the other day a firefighter sold me a book. Dave Hugelschaffer was the firefighter in Chapters selling and signing his book, Day Into Night.
CSI for forest firefighters was the one line pitch for the book. Day Into Night is the first in a mystery series starring Porter Cassel as an Albertan ex-forest ranger and current fire investigator.
When the novel opens Cassel is haunted by the explosive death of his fiancee in an act of environmental terrorism aimed at the lumber industry some years ago. She was the first human victim of the terrorist’s, Lorax’s, vendetta against equipment. The Lorax stopped his attacks for several years, but another piece of equipment and another life is taken as the book opens. Cassel heads out and starts his own investigation in parallel to that of the of the RCMP. But his life is complicated as the summer a serial arsonist is also setting fires to the tinder dry Albertan timber. He needs to balance his off-hours vendetta for justice against the demands of his job.
I like the book. I told my father I’d lend it to him if it was any good and I’ll do so. I’ll come back to the positive points, but I have a few (read four 🙂 ) complaints with the novel.
The first is that the book is at its best when it is the closest to reality. But the main events of the novel are set in two fictional towns: Curtain River and Fort Termination. While these are a seeming melange of attributes from various small towns in Northern Alberta their fictional non-existence took me out of the story. Against this are other scenes in Edmonton – K division, on Whyte Avenue, in WEM, etc. – that resonate with reality. Had the Curtain River segments happened in Nordegg or Edson I think the same verisimilitude could have been brought to bear.
The second is the preponderance of coincidence. Now, I was hasty to judge on this. Seeming convenient coincidences are later explained quite well as the book progresses. The largest is that when Porter steals a random fragment of equipment residue from a bomb site, one of thousands, it just happens to contain a valuable clue. The second largest is that in taking a stroll through the wood, Porter just happens to encounter a highly suspicious masked, cammo-garbed, gun-toting stranger.
The third is the presence of some cliches. In its whole the book is quite novel. I’ve never read a mystery set in Alberta with characters acting like the Albertans I know before. I’d never read a story about someone investigating forest fires. That was cool! So when the bad guy shoots with the accuracy of an Imperial Stormtrooper and the protagonist gets off on the wrong foot with the law those elements took me out of the story as well.
Finally, the book didn’t satisfy its high concept – CSI for forest firefighters. In large part because the author, who seems to know his stuff, glossed over all the scientific/forensic details. Cassel can track a fire thousands of hectares big to its point of origin, but we only get part of the explanation. The forest rangers have metrics for grading the fire danger based on forest type, weather, dryness, etc., but the novel doesn’t explain those factors in any more details than the 6 o’clock news. Nifty forensic analysis occurs, but it is often in RCMP labs to which Cassel isn’t allowed and he only gets the results. This made me sad.
But, if the high concept had been that a Dashiell Hammett Continental Op type were as ex-forest ranger investigating an environmental terrorist it would have been more true and would have engaged my interest more! And look that is what the book actually was. I was disappointed about what I didn’t find in the book, but I was pretty happy with what I found instead. Cassel is an excellent dogged investigator. He goes and questions folks, he gets lied to, he investigates more and discovers the lie, he goes back an talks to the witnesses/suspects again and gets lied to. He gets the crap kicked out of him, puts on his one bandage, flirts with the nurse and goes and sticks his nose into other peoples business again. When his friends, his enemies and the police all tell him to stop getting so obsessed he only becomes more so. Really Porter Cassel is far more Jack Nicholson in Chinatown than William Peterson from CSI.
The other strength of the book is its portrayal of the Albertan north and wilderness. The author doesn’t see everything with the same eyes I do, but they are a nifty alternate perspective. The author is a person who has driven the roads, fought the fires, and drank in the bars. That comes though very authentically and it fascinated me.
Finally, while the plot doesn’t contain any giant surprises it plays fairly with the reader and its predictability is the kind I like in a story. The author is giving me just enough information that I’m figuring things out before Cassel. The mystery structure is sound and the tension is nicely ratchetted up as the story continues and Cassel finds himself under siege from the bad guys and the police. He even begins to look at his friends in a paranoid light. It works very well.
I have a stack of other books to read, but ‘ll probably seek out the next Porter Cassel mystery before the summer is out. The author signed my book, “To Todd, hope you enjoy the book.” I certainly did. Glad I took a chance at the bookstore.