Copyright: December 2011 (Berkley) 320 pgs
Series: 1st in Summer Westin Mysteries
Mystery Sub-genre: Suspense
Main Characters: Summer Westin, Wildlife biologist for Save the Wilderness Fund
Setting: Modern day, Utah's Heritage National Monument
Obtained Through: Publisher for honest review
Summer (Sam) Westin, aka Wilderness Westin to her "Save the Wilderness Fund" website followers, is in Utah's Heritage National Monument to do a follow-up on a previous story. A cougar had been shot and SWF had rescued the cougar and her cubs, treated the wounds and released them back to the park. Sam is hoping to get some photos of the cougars now to report their progress to SWF website. She had worked at the park in the past and still knows some of the park rangers. She is about to set off from the Ranger HQ to hike into the off-trail back country when she sees a little blond haired boy who wandered away from his camp. Sam can hear the mother calling for Zack and she is about to take the boy to his mother when Zack goes toddling off to a man approaching. Everything appears as though this is Zack's father and she thinks nothing of it until she has set up camp hours later and calls into her park ranger friend Kent to find out everyone is searching for Zack. Sam treks back into the Ranger HQ to join the search, feeling responsible not ensuring the little boy was really with his father. It seems like a simple premise, but this book grabs the reader and won't let go until the last page.
There are several elements at play in this story. Sam and the SWF are getting stabbed in the back by an opportunist reporter who turns Zack's disappearance into a sensationalized tale of Cougars versus unsuspecting campers. It doesn't help that Sam was dating said reporter. This begins a chain reaction of "kill the cougars" frenzy spurred on by a local who resents not getting to hunt in the park. Then the FBI join the mix which brings more exposure to the situation when it sorely needed less distractions from the search efforts. There is a clock ticking to find Zack before the autumn temperatures get too cold at night, or a human slips out of the park with him, and before the cougars get hunters using helicopters to hunt and kill them.
Sam is a great character with a good mix of independent outdoors woman who is vulnerable yet daring and smart but headstrong. She is passionate about the wilderness and animals while she dials her satellite phone to upload her story from a laptop complete with digital photos. She is a modern woman who is very capable in the wilderness by herself but not afraid to show her softer side. Chase (Starchaser) Perez, half Lakota FBI agent is a fascinating character too. His cool FBI demeanor only hints at much deeper waters occasionally. He enlists Sam to be his guide for checking spots in the park that are prime for hiding Zack and finds himself trying to keep up. Repelling for the first time down slot canyons is but one challenge that Sam throws his way. These two characters play well off each other in a natural believable way.
The setting of Utah's wilderness and wildlife becomes a character in itself. The author brings the coyotes yipping at night, the crisp autumn air, the wonder of ancient Anasazi ruins, and the magnificence of slot canyons vividly to the readers mind. The cougars that Sam is following up on become a part of the story as you want the mother and her grown cubs to be innocent of any involvement with Zack's disappearance and ultimately left to live their lives. I felt like I had been trekking the trails experiencing the sights and sounds with Sam.
The plot is very believable and gripping as it unfolds. The pacing keeps the reader turning pages always wanting to read just a little further to find out the next thing. This book is hard to put down even to eat a meal. I warn you now.
The climax is white knuckle-edge-of-your-seat ride that has me holding my breath. The wrap up is a resounding success that ensured my checking to see when the next book would be released. Bear Bait is the next book and it is "coming soon" - not soon enough for me.
If it seems like I am gushing, I just can't help it. This was a fantastic suspense story with a plausible plot filled with suspense, characters who are compelling and exciting in their mission, with a luscious setting and a gripping climax.