David Riley Bertsch
Simon & Schuster/Scribner
David Riley Bertsch’s debut contemporary Western thriller, “Death Canyon,” arrives atop waves of praise from some of the biggest names in the genre — C.J. Box and Craig Johnson among them.
Unfortunately, any suggestion that this Jackson Hole-based mystery is the equal of those authors’ work is a sadly mistaken one. Tangled plotting, tepid prose, deficient storycraft and cardboard — even cartoonish — characters combine to make “Death Canyon” a disappointing read.
The shortcomings are glaringly apparent in the opening pages, in which a murderer reflects: “Killing a person, no matter the circumstances or the extent of the justification, was a horribly disturbing undertaking.”
Well, yeah. So is the experience of reading nearly 400 pages of similarly stilted writing.
Then there’s the story. Three seemingly unconnected outdoors deaths in one day, amid an increase in earthquake activity, arouse the suspicions of Jake Trent, a federal prosecutor turned fishing guide, and Noelle Klimpton, a plucky national park ranger.
Their sleuthing leads to a shadowy Svengali-like figure named The Shaman, who uses a cult of Earth First! styled environment extremists as cover for a scheme to use Yellowstone National Park as a testing ground for extracting cheap energy from the earth. He and his boss also hold a long-simmering grudge against Jake.
The two prove to be bumbling baddies out of the Bond Villain Grab Bag, all snarling speechifying and slipshod execution. They’re equally bent on revenge and ravaging the earth, but can’t seem to focus on either. (They register a vehicle in Jake’s name for use in a hit-and-run — but don’t do more with their ability to steal his identity.) And the over-the-top finale essentially rewrites the final scenes of the Bond film “The Man With The Golden Gun.”
Despite these deficiencies, Bertsch, himself a Jackson Hole fishing guide, displays an authoritative sense of place and a genuine affection for it, and readers will come away enlightened about the natural delights of western Wyoming and the politics that threaten them. And Jake Trent and Noelle Klimpton are appealing if generic heroes, sturdy enough to sustain further adventures.
But ultimately, “Death Canyon” is undone by soggy, exposition-heavy storytelling, by bewildering mid-scene shifts in points of view, by contradictions (Noelle describes leaving a New York fiancé five years before; later, she mentions being in Yellowstone for not “much more than a decade”) and by bewildering character behavior. (Why did the sheriff pull over, punch out Jake, leave him roadside, then drive off in response to a report of the hit-run vehicle linked to Jake?)
As an editor, my overwhelming sense is that “Death Canyon” is actually an early manuscript draft, one that should have been heavily red-penned and returned to the author for extensive revisions instead of being rushed to publication.
Why that didn’t happen — and why far better writers like Box and Johnson made themselves accessories to this case of felony editorial malpractice — are mysteries far more compelling than any you’ll find in “Death Canyon.”
Jim Thomsen is a Seattle-based book editor.