Splendid second outing in a procedural series (Shell Games, 2003) about a tough-as-nails California Fish & Game investigator busting a cabal of bear poachers.
Lt. John Marquez thinks he’s alone in the forest when he hears a twig snap. Kirk milks so much malevolence from that single sound that the disturbingly horrific events that follow—including a murder as ghastly as the infamous flaying deaths in The Silence of the Lambs—invest the scenic northern California mountains with as much brooding danger as any inner city slum. As head of the last remaining state Fish & Game undercover investigation team, Marquez is after a shadowy group of poachers who bait, trap, torture, and kill bears, then sell pieces of them to folk healers. No mere bunch of backwoods bad boys, this group has hacked into the state computers and has the names and addresses of Marquez and his team, and of their family members. Now, Marquez finds himself cast as a go-between a possibly corrupt game warden, Bill Petroni, and a zealous homicide detective, Jack Kendal. Kendall is trying to solve a nearly year-old murder of an idealistic young camper, while Petroni, who once led a similar Fish & Game undercover team, has left his wife to move in with bar maid and local femme fatale Sophie Broussard, whose family and boyfriend have a history of drug manufacturing, bear poaching, and over-the-top violence. Add in a powerful state senator who’s about to join a logging industry lobbyist on a bear hunt—without a license. Russell manages expertly in shifting between scenes of shocking brutality and sour cynicism (for conniving bureaucrats and venal lawyers), not to mention in portraying the many levels of affection Marquez feels for his team, his family, the animals he’s sworn to protect, and the magnificent wilderness that surrounds him.
Superb suspense, culminating in an exhausting but satisfying series of chases, showdowns, and bitter glimpses of justice denied.