Colorado: a state of panoramic vistas and rugged, craggy mountains; a big-game hunter’s Paradise; a place where, it seems, environmental concerns are often at odds with those of hunters and off-roaders. It’s a beautiful state, where the wonders and grandeur of nature enthrall; it’s also a perfect backdrop for novels of mystery and murder such as Antler Dust, Mark Stevens' debut novel. The contrast between the pristine beauty of nature at its finest and the greed and ugliness that can sometimes define the human soul creates a dramatic tension that pervades Steven’s novel and is, for myself, at least, one of the more interesting aspects of it - along, of course, with the double murder that takes center stage in the novel.
Many authors have chosen Colorado as the setting of their books, most notably of late Stephen White, with books like Kill Me and Dry Ice, and Nicholas Evans with his novel The Divide. Stevens’ book combines elements of both writers in Antler Dust, making it a finely plotted thriller with an ecological message that is crucial to the plot but doesn’t get in its way. While he may not always reach the same heights of writing as either White or Evans consistently (yet), Mark Stevens shows with this debut that he is definitely an author worth watching and reading; there are several points in Antler Dust where he at least equals the writing of White and Evans.
The heroine of Antler Dust is hunting guide Allison Coil, a person with issues and a past that haunts her present. Coil is one of the survivors of a plane wreck, and memories of the crash, the dead bodies, and the icy sea water she found herself in afterwards pervade the book - to my taste, too much; it sometimes seems that whenever the proverbial hat drops, she has a crash flashback. But, Allison Coil does have, to be fair, many tiring and tense moments during the course of the book that conceivably could remind her of the disaster from her past - like, for instance, being the sole witness to a man dragging a dead body through snow in the Rockies through her binoculars, and trying to convince her boyfriend, Forest Ranger Dave Slater, and the law, in the form of the gruff Sheriff Sandstrom, that what she saw was a crime taking place rather than her imagination playing tricks on her or something totally unrelated.
It’s the kind of novel where the reader knows almost from the start who the killers are, so in that respect, there’s no mystery involved or clues to figure out, like there might be in an Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, or Dick Francis novel. Antler Dust’s appeal is more in relating with Allison Coil’s struggles to bring what she saw to the attention of the authorities and how her perseverance leads her to discover more than she bargained for in regards to the supposed Boy Scout-type persona that her boyfriend clothes himself in. There’s suspense and tension in spades, with the murderers trying to prevent her from figuring out the truth and exposing them.
Big game hunting outfitter George Grumley is the main baddie of the book, at least at the beginning. He learns of one of his employee’s infidelities with his wife Trudy, and as the employee (and Coil’s past love interest) Rocky Carnivitas is bent over a tranquilized elk to which he’s attaching a GPS collar, he tells Grumley he wants to blackmail him for $20,000. Grumley responds, “How does a nobody like you figure he’s going to snap his fingers and make himself a somebody?”
Telling your employer you’re having an affair with his wife and threatening to expose crooked hunting practices when said employer is holding a rifle and you’re both out in the middle of nowhere is not a particularly smart thing to do. When another of Grumley’s employees, Dean Applegate, mistakenly shoots and kills an anti-hunting advocate who’s dressed in brown to resemble a deer on the same day, Grumley shows up there, also. He tells Applegate to give him the rifle and “I’ll take care of it. Anybody asks, you put it down somewhere and forgot it. Lost it.”
These two murders, one intentional and one accidental, occurring on the exact same day seems too coincidental. Still, I forced myself to ignore little early niggling doubts about such aspects of the plot, give Antler Dust a chance, and read on - which turned out to be good, because many qualities about the novel are handled very well. Allison Coil develops into a three-dimensional character, Grumley is an appropriately evil villain, and Dave Slater proves the old adage that a book can’t always be judged by its cover. Antler Dust is a book that likely will please readers of Stephen White and Nicholas Evans, marking a fine debut novel from an author whom I’m sure has a long and illustrious writing career ahead of him.