In this mystery, a murder along the Cuyamaca Mountains in San Diego, Calif., pits a dedicated forest ranger against a host of shady villains.
Chris Becker, chief ranger at Cuyamaca State Park, has been a single father since his wife, Lori, abandoned him and their young daughter, Alicia, more than a decade ago. His work solving a rash of car thefts in the park is nothing compared to the discovery of a mutilated body on picturesque Azalea Trail, a hiking path canopied in pine chaparral. Becker jumps on the case, pondering whether the bite marks covering the corpse are indeed from the suspected wild cougar or something else, since there were no animal hairs found at the scene. Meanwhile, Alicia braces for her freshman year at university, and her father must deal with his reservations about having his only child out on her own. Once the mystery deepens into murder, Becker investigates the crime further to uncover foul play. The victim, Xavier Hess, turns out to be a local businessman who was hiding marital infidelity. As the clues mount—some provided by Becker’s observant daughter—Becker pieces together inconsistent forensic data and busily sifts through the suspects, including angry alcoholic and local environmental protectionist Ollie Mahlon. The resultant web of bad blood and discoveries of secret tunnels and stolen artifacts propel the novel toward a suspenseful, satisfying denouement. After all the twists and turns, Becker, who proves himself a thoroughly capable ranger and father throughout the novel, solves the case in 10 remarkable days. Some of the prose is rickety—Becker’s disappointment at sleeping alone is described as “at least thermally less difficult”—but father-daughter writing duo Picard and Picard Gorham supplement their mystery with Alicia’s believable pre-college jitters, the flourishing relationship with her father, and interesting facts and information on forestry and archaeology.
An entertaining, uncomplicated whodunit seasoned with a likable hero and a bucolic sense of place.