It’s time for risk analyst Owen Allison to go back to Palo Alto to work on the reconciliation with his ex-wife Judith that was interrupted by his mother’s chemotherapy (Dismal Mountain, 2001). But one mishap after another tempts Owen to linger in West Virginia. First, the dam atop Anson Stokes’s unused Canaan II mine blows, filling Drybone Hollow with coal sludge and sweeping away the trailers belonging to Lyle Tanner and Anson’s brother Cable—along with Lyle’s wife Maddie and two hapless honeymooners from Tennessee. Then, Anson hires Owen to convince green-leaning judge Carter Vereen that despite the damage to Canaan II, his Canaan III is safe to operate. But instead of reopening Canaan III, Vereen orders an investigation of all impoundment dams sitting on mines. So state attorney general Hayes Boyer asks Owen to lead the investigation, adding that since Owen is a newcomer, he’ll accept a kickback of only 15% of Owen’s fee. Naturally refusing, Owen asks sheriff Thad Reader, his old friend, to help him set a trap to expose the rigged contracts. But Reader’s got his hands full. Mary Beth Hobbs, mother of high-school pitching phenom Jeb Stuart Hobbs, has disappeared, and Reader thinks Cable may be holding her hostage. Chasing kidnappers, rooting out corruption, babysitting Jeb Stuart, and flirting with perky mine engineer Emily Kruk leaves Owen scant time for Judith, and no prospect of leaving his birthplace any time soon.
Soap opera aside, Billheimer constructs a puzzle so ingenious that, like the folks in the Hollow, readers shoulda seen it coming—but they won’t.