On the heels of her excellent debut novel, The Wild Inside, Christine Carbo returns with another suspense-filled book,Mortal Fall, which also takes place in and around the majestic setting of northwestern Montana’s Glacier National Park. The protagonist is a park police officer named Monty Harris who somehow survived an extremely dysfunctional family life as a child to graduate college and become a productive citizen. But he’s haunted by specters from the past which continue to affect his current life, both personally and professionally. He’s now separated from his wife, Lara, due in large part to issues springing from his childhood, and his work is now basically his life. He strives to do the best he possibly can, focusing on the job almost exclusively.
As the book opens, Monty is called to a scene off the park’s main highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road, where a body has been discovered at the bottom of a deep ravine below a very popular hiking trail. The victim is a wildlife biologist named Paul “Wolfie” Sedgewick who was studying the wolverine population in and around the park. It’s possible that Sedgewick fell accidentally, as hikers sometimes do in a moment of carelessness. But Monty has trouble imagining such a thing. Sedgewick was no ill-prepared tourist from the flatlands; he was an experienced mountain hiker and the fact that he could have fallen seems incomprehensible.
It’s possible that Sedgewick might have committed suicide, but did he have a plausible reason for doing so? As for other alternatives, as one of the characters observes, the most fool-proof way to murder someone would be to push them off a mountain cliff when no one else is looking. But who might have wanted Sedgewick dead? Harris has no evidence at all to suggest that Sedgewick’s death might be either a suicide or a homicide and, if the latter, he also has no plausible suspects, at least initially. But then, when Monty discovers portions of another body near the site where Sedgewick died, it appears to be too much of a coincidence, even though it very well might be.
Hikers are anxious to have this business laid to rest so that the trail can be reopened. It’s clear that Monty’s boss would prefer that Harris rule these deaths accidental, so that things can get back to normal and so that the tourists won’t be scared away by concerns of a killer roaming the park. But Harris doggedly pursues his investigation while at the same time he deals with complicated family issues. The deeper he digs, the more sinister these deaths appear and before long, Harris may be in serious danger himself.
Monty Harris is a deeply conflicted and multi-layered protagonist, and one of the pleasures of reading the story lies in watching the way Carbo develops him and the other characters. This is almost as much a character study as it is a crime novel. As in her first book, Carbo writes beautifully about the awesome physical setting in which this story plays out. At the same time, though, she captures the dark undercurrent of the environment around the park where significant numbers of people have no use for environmentalists, for the park service, the park police, or the government generally. The suspense builds from the opening pages and pays off with a great climax that few readers will see coming. This is another sure winner.