Southwest desert plays host to Legault's newest mystery
By: Carol Picard
| Posted: Thursday, Sep 06, 2012 06:00 am
In the desert of the American southwest, millennium-old dust forms a film of microscopically small ball bearing-like particles across the entire moon-like landscape. But for climbers, scramblers and cyclists, the illusion of what might provide friction for feet or tires is quickly revealed for what it is – a paradox. Looks dry but it’s as slippery as grease when one tries to get a hold on the surrounding rock.
Hence the title of Canmore mystery writer Stephen Legault’s newest release, Slickrock Paradox – not only is the landscape not what it appears to be, nothing in protagonist Silas Pearson’s life is either.
His wife has been missing for three and a half years and Silas – Dr. Pearson, please – has been wandering the desert for all of that time, not in any meandering, Moses-like journey in the wilderness but in a methodical, GPS-coordinated trek of all those places his environmental activist wife might likely have visited. There are those who suggest she is safely encamped in the south of France, having finally divested herself of her absent-minded and emotionally absent professor husband but Silas, in his bones, knows Penelope is out there somewhere. Likely dead, likely skeletal at this point, but he needs to know and he needs to know why.
She visits him in his dreams, steering him, through quotes from Edward Abbey’s iconic environmental treatises, to a series of murders old and recent, all of which lead back to the ongoing struggle between development and pristine wilderness and weaving a page-turning thread of suspense.
In the hands of a less skillful writer, such a literary construct could come across as hokey and contrived, but Legault does a masterful job of making it all so believable. The human landscape in Slickrock Paradox is equally littered with characters that are not what they seem to be, such that even the good guys are suspect, right up until the end.
Central to the story are the cliff dwellings that form the backbone of Mesa Verde National Park, and the byzantine web of duplicate and sometimes contradictory legislation in place to protect them and the scarce water resources in the desert. As well, we are treated to a glimpse into the cutthroat underworld of grave robbers and artifact traders.
Legault’s passion for the American southwest resonates throughout. His descriptions of canyons and mesas and plateaus, of the swift and treacherous weather changes and the smells and light as season moves through season, leaves one with a sense of having been treated to a well written travelogue layered with intrigue by the time the story ends.
This is his sixth mystery, but the first in his newest series, the Red Rock Canyon Mysteries. Like his previous two protagonists, environmental activist Cole Blackwater and Durrant Wallace of the NWMP, Silas Pearson is a flawed and deeply troubled man who wears his past like the proverbial hair shirt, forced to acknowledge it and never quite comfortable with its fit.
Slickrock Paradox has just hit the shelves of Canmore’s Café Books and an official launch party has yet to be announced. In Calgary it will be launched at the Owls Nest Bookstore on Sept. 18 at 7 p.m.