You can take the reporter out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the reporter.
Though the former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post reporter Mark Stevens has turned his pen toward writing fiction, the books are still packed with some of the thornier and most pressing issues in contemporary Colorado. “The Melancholy Howl,” the fifth book in his Colorado Book Award-winning Allison Coil series of mysteries, will be published Tuesday, Oct. 23.
Stevens’ heroine is a hunting guide in the Flat Tops Wilderness who keeps turning up mysteries and murders from her far-flung high country post atop her trusty horse Sunny Boy. Stevens hooked local fans on Allison Coil with its Glenwood Springs-based action.
As the series has progressed, Stevens has incorporated current events that give his page-turning yarns some real-world teeth. The 2007 series opener “Antler Dust” dealt with animal-rights issues and poaching, “Buried By the Roan” tackled fracking, “Trapline” was driven by the fight over immigration policy enforcement and “Lake of Fire” the battle over global warming policy.
“I’m sure my career in journalism influences how I think about stories,” Stevens explained via email. “There is no way I can leave that side of me behind. I am interested in news and events as backdrops for stories and I think the ‘real world’ offers a wealth of good stories and characters. The newspapers practically provide a shortcut to drama every day; why conjure everything from scratch when it’s sitting right there?”
In “The Melancholy Howl,” a conspiracy thriller plays out against the wild early days of legalized marijuana.
As the book opens, the tough and self-reliant outdoorswoman Coil comes upon a dead deer and, nearby, a man tied to a tree. He claims he’s survived a plane crash but is tight-lipped about his identity. By the times she brings authorities to the scene, the man has disappeared. But following his trail soon exposes a wide-ranging conspiracy, black market smuggling and murder swirling around the burgeoning Colorado pot industry.
The book reunites Coil with a rag-tag group of reluctant sleuths from the earlier novels. Her best friend Trudy Heath is now entangled with an embittered ex-rock star shooting a NatGeo TV series about foraging in the forest (he’s a colorful addition to the gang, brought to life with the wry humor Stevens employs charmingly throughout the new novel). The anti-authoritarian mountain man Devo has gone missing. And the dogged Glenwood Post Independent reporter Duncan Bloom is now contemplating bailing on the newspaper to strike it rich with legal weed as his “winning lottery ticket,” but he’s still piecing together the pieces of another blockbuster story.
As with the previous Coil novels, Western Slope readers will revel in some of the local color that Stevens sprinkles in from Glenwood to Carbondale, Rifle and Meeker.
The tangle of mysteries at the heart of the novel slowly unravel thanks to Bloom’s shoe-leather reporting and Coil’s backcountry instincts, a high-country spin on the tried-and-true gumshoe narrative.
He has researched each of the Allison Coil books deeply — interviewing sources, traveling to locations for his fiction and taking photographs.
Digging into the pot business for “The Melancholy Howl,” Stevens said, “I toured marijuana grows, talked to lawyers who work in the business, and consumed every last little bit of journalism I could get my hands on.”
Coil was inspired by a guide Stevens met on a daylong horseback ride through the Flat Tops. He thought he’d write one book about the character, but has found a wealth of stories — five-books worth of material and counting — here on the Western Slope to keep her alive.
“I must say there is absolutely no shortage of good topics in Colorado and/or Western Colorado,” Stevens said in an email. “The hard part is narrowing them down and staying focused.”