In this debut thriller, two lake explorers discover a deadly environmental peril.
Jack Burrows is a field biologist for the McAlpine County Department of Natural Resources in Montville, California. One day, he and his friend Hank Klein, an experienced ocean diver, set out to explore the fresh waters of Wounded Horse Lake. When they get about 50 feet down, searching for noteworthy mountains or depressions on the lake bottom, they encounter an “undulating liquid surface” that reflects light. Hank believes the phenomenon to be the result of extremely cold water below unable to mix with warmer water above, so he descends through the barrier to check the temperature. Then his mask fogs up and admits some of the liquid, which burns his eye; also, his swim fins become soft, as if partially melted. When he taps his buoyancy compensation device to jet slowly upward, the button sticks, and he zooms toward the lake surface. Shortly, Jack finds that Hank has expired from the bends. When Hank’s son, Jason, arrives, Jack shares his theory about a paper mill that once operated nearby and about the toxic dumping that may have poisoned the lake decades ago. Burkhart has fashioned an ecological thriller that addresses the consequences of degrading the environment for money. Montville is portrayed as a tightknit community where nearly everyone is connected and gossip travels fast; readers learn about characters such as Gil Elkins, the dive-shop owner, in deftly written portraits and flashbacks. There’s also Jack’s environmentally passionate wife, Mary, who’s the daughter of Charlie Owens, the former owner of the aforementioned paper factory that once provided Montville jobs. Useful scientific information throughout explains carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls, which “are hard to remove by natural decomposition. Once in the ground or in the water, they remain and do their mischief for many years.” Midway through, Burkhart uses an earthquake to speed his plot toward various resolutions. When justice comes for the story’s victims, it’s brutal and poetic.
A swiftly paced novel about the human cost of environmental greed.