Aspen novelist Catherine O’Connell’s new mystery series stars a ski patroller
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘First Tracks’ booksigning with Catherine O’Connell
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Monday, June 24, 5:30 p.m.
More info: 970-925-5336
256 pages, $28.99
Severn House, July 1
In Catherine O’Connell’s new novel, our hero is an Aspen Mountain ski patroller.
“I’ve always wanted to do a woman ski patroller book,” she said.
“First Tracks” is the first entry in a planned series for O’Connell, centered on patroller Greta Westerlind. O’Connell hopes to write at least four more books in this Aspen series.
The book will be published July 1, but O’Connell is unveiling it for local readers early with a signing at Explore Booksellers on Monday. She dedicated “First Tracks” to five local women working as ski patrollers and instructors, and drew inspiration from them for Greta.
A longtime Aspenite, O’Connell began visiting Aspen during her time as a college student in Boulder in the mid-1970s and mostly settled here in 1979. O’Connell included a handful of Aspen scenes in her most recent book, 2018’s “Last Night Out,” but has otherwise avoided writing about her town until now. She’s admittedly nervous about locals reading her depiction of the town.
“I don’t want to insult anyone,” she said. “But I’m writing a crime book, so I have to have a bit of fun with my characters and immensely wealthy people give me a lot to work with.”
“First Tracks” is a character-driven mystery centered on a smart and resourceful Ajax ski patroller. Westerlind, a hard-working, harder skiing Wisconsin native, finds herself at the center of a menacing plot, following an avalanche on Aspen’s backside that kills her bond-trading ski buddy and leaves her memory foggy.
The ski patrol sections offer the reader a glimpse of the hidden work most of us don’t see — the setting of avalanche bombs, a play-by-play of an on-mountain rescue.
Much of Greta’s narrative is a sort of love letter to skiing (“Even sex isn’t as good as this.”) and O’Connell has an easy, tactile way of describing ski scenes that will make any local pine for a powder run down Jackpot.
O’Connell peppers the first-person narrative with knowing local color, calling out linked ski runs during a powder day scene, detailing the Aspen housing shuffle, Ajax shrines and small insights like “it’s difficult to be in City Market without seeing someone you know” and “Aspen women just rock.” There are witty descriptions of local phenomena like the “Aspen roulette” of trying to fly into Sardy Field in wintertime, a sub-plot about an exploitative TV crew in town for a documentary about Ted Bundy and a scene detailing the inter-generational romantic pairings at a fictionalized Caribou Club (here called the Bugabou).
And O’Connell has some fun with the average Aspenite’s proximity to obscene wealth. Greta’s encounter with an international businessman nets a private jet ride to St. Moritz, Switzerland, for instance.
The book is written such that it will give locals much to appreciate, but won’t exclude a general readership. Writing about a place she knows so well was a challenge for O’Connell.
“I see everything perfectly, so I have to think about it through the eyes of somebody who has never been here,” she said.
She also was careful not to slide into nostalgia about the ways Aspen has changed.
“I wanted to avoid whining, and I think I did,” she said.