Tough terrain 

Craig's thriller peaks with characters

Recently I've been perusing far too many genre novels; the kind of books that feature highly convoluted plotting, dialog that seems plagiarized from an answering machine, and characters with the combined personality of a ping-pong game. It's always shocking, in the best possible way, to see a budding novelist like Rick Craig write a thriller in which adrenaline is secondary to the construction of fascinating people—even if that means producing a plot that is overly simplistic. With The Last Mountains (Geyser Books)—a confection of mystery, adventure, Bush-era politics and paternal drama—this is exactly the case. Depending on why you're reading it, this could be an advantage or a detriment, as Craig's first is good for all the wrong reasons.

click to enlarge Rick Craig reads from The Last Mountains at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 PM. Free.
  • Rick Craig reads from The Last Mountains at Shakespeare & Co. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 PM. Free.

Missoula-based Craig, a recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award and a teacher of mountaineering among other extreme recreations, sets his geographically gorgeous story in Grand Teton National Park in the summer of 2002. We are introduced to his protagonist, Tom Hadley, a Park Service climbing ranger whose celebrated career was cut short by a high-altitude brain edema, and who is now desperately trying to adjust to his comparatively modest life in his "last mountains." Just a few short pages into Craig's novel, Tom and his aloof son, Ben, come across the body of a climber near the summit of the Grand, whose fall appears to have been caused by a rock avalanche that Ben may have caused. Of course, it soon becomes dreadfully apparent that the tragedy is anything but natural.

As Tom begins to investigate, he realizes (after some casual, improbable clue-gathering) that the man's death could be linked to an insidious conspiracy leading straight to the vice president of the United States. (Why the Veep would decide to vacation in the vicinity of a murder he orchestrates is unclear). Throw in the Veep's lovelorn daughter, a sinister DOD operative (who appears to have been borrowed from every conspiracy-laced film ever made), an ambiguous assassination attempt thwarted by Tom and a chain-smoking reporter, and you have a fizzing tale of deceit that unfortunately never really sparks.

The Last Mountains as political potboiler is flat and unsurprising, with a narrative limited to Tom arguing with his bureaucratic boss, stomping around Wyoming trying to make sense of the scheming, and engaging in discussions on the nature of government. The book rummages through the lead-up to the Iraq invasion and the disingenuous intelligence that got us there, only this time around a snarling Dick Cheney is a snarling Frank DuChesne, the dead guy on the mountain is a whistle-blowing G-man (a lither Joe Wilson, I presume), and the global war on terror is capsulized to fit snuggly into the magisterial terrain of western Wyoming. Fitting these threads together leaves much to be desired, and by the time Tom gets around to blackmailing the government in exchange for his and his son's safety, you may find yourself primarily not caring very much. The climax, needless to say, is unlikely.

Don't, however, judge a book by its cover-up. Craig's novel is superb for reasons unrelated to its cloak-and-dagger subterfuges.

The tenuous relationship between father and son is palpable, even as Tom digs into the whitewash while protecting Ben from the black-and-white world of ideologues. Likewise, the author does an admirable job of portraying the tight-knit climbing community around Jackson Hole, giving even the most peripheral characters the space to flesh out and become more than jabbering figurines. The inescapable love-interest angle, with a marathon-training waitress, is especially well-executed, circumnavigating the usual clichés by showing the uncertainties of newfound passion. There is certainly a trove of chintzy dialog, but because of Craig's economical style, the silliness tends to be reigned in; occasionally the writing is quite insightful: "Lately there had been a trickle of interest at the back of his mind," he writes of Tom's crush. "Like a leaky faucet in a neighboring apartment."

As with so many entry-level novels, there is a striking amount of compellingly descriptive writing mixed with dilettantish action sequences; inspired observations mingled with unnecessary back-and-forth blather. As a climber himself, Craig knows the ins and outs of mountaineering, and the passages that detail the minutiae of climbing (there is a tense rescue scene about halfway through that is absolutely gripping) are easily the book's most exciting moments.

Whatever his shortcomings, Tom Hadley is a welcome, mature addition to the higher end of straight-to-paperback literature. Somewhere between one of those independently produced climbing documentaries and an avuncular version of a Jason Bourne installment, The Last Mountains is the converse of what it should be—namely, a facile storyline made enjoyable by strong characterization and an expertly rendered location. Despite the shoddy intrigue, it's nonetheless an enthusiastic start to a promising series.

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