| AspenTimes.com

Mark Stevens’ latest Colorado wilderness thriller unravels a marijuana mystery

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.”


Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Lake of Fire’

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there’s a conspiracy afoot in Mark Stevens’ “Lake of Fire.” The page-turning follow-up to the author’s Colorado Book Award-winning “Trapline,” this is the fourth in Stevens’ inventive Alison Coil mystery series.

This time around, Coil, a tough and intuitive hunting guide, tracks a case of murder-by-wildfire that eventually unearths a larger conspiracy. She’s brought into the fold by Devo, a wild-eyed anti-authoritarian living off the land (and, ironically, the subject of a reality TV show about doing so). Devo finds early on that a wildfire ravaging the Flat Tops Wilderness was set to cover up the murder of an environmental activist. Coil brings Glenwood Springs reporter Duncan Bloom and his organic food provider girlfriend, Trudy, to help find Soto’s killer.

Stevens crafts a tight thriller with a wonderful sense of the characters and atmosphere of the Colorado mountains – Western Slope readers will no doubt see their friends and neighbors and themselves in the rag-tag team of individualistic high-country sleuths of “Lake of Fire.”

A former reporter himself, Stevens deftly weaves current events and Colorado issues into his books. As the contentious fight over immigration policy served as the engine of “Trapline,” the battle over global warming drives “Lake of Fire.” Consider this from the book’s opening pages, where Alison thinks about the flames of the forest fire as a dragon’s breath: “Dragon in the form of climate change and beatle kill and aberrant, menacing storms. And her demise. A minor loss in the big scheme of things. Katrina to Sandy to the monster tornados from Missouri to Oklahoma.”

Heavy stuff for a paperback thriller. Many readers, of course, turn to mystery novels as diversions from fears about things like global warming. Instead, in “Lake of Fire,” Stevens uses those fears to drive a gripping gumshoe narrative.


‘High Road to Aspen’ wins Colorado Book Award

Three books by local writers were nominated for Colorado Book Awards, and one — by Aspen Times columnist Paul Andersen — took home a prize at the awards ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Doerr-Hosier Center at Aspen Meadows.

“High Road to Aspen,” a portrait of Independence Pass in words and photos by Andersen and photographer David Hiser, won the award in the pictorial category. Andersen was not in attendance. Book designer Curt Carpenter accepted the award on his and Hiser’s behalf.

Local schoolteacher-turned-novelist Linda Lafftery was nominated in the thriller category for “The House of Bathory,” a novel linking a murder in 17th-century Slovakia to modern Aspen. She lost out to Shane Kuhn’s “The Intern’s Handbook.”

“A Democracy of Poets: Poems of the Roaring Fork Valley and Beyond,” a collection of works by writers who’ve read at the Aspen Poets’ Society monthly gatherings — edited by local writers Marjorie DeLuca, Cameron Scott and Rett Harper — was nominated in the anthology category. It lost to “Outdoors in the Southwest,” by Andrew Gulliford.

A novel set in the Roaring Fork Valley also took home a prize. “Trapline,” a novel about a Glenwood Springs newspaper reporter, an outfitter and a murder in the Flat Tops, by Denver writer Mark Stevens, won for best mystery.

The awards ceremony was the first event of the Aspen Summer Words literary festival, kicking off a week of workshops and public panels.

Events continue today with panels at The Gant and Paepcke Auditorium, featuring authors Hannah Tinti, Lea Carpenter, Michael Maren, Dani Shapiro and Akhil Sharma. A full schedule and tickets are available at www.aspenwords.com.