Rock Bottom by Sarah Andrews is the eleventh in the Em Hansen, forensic geologist, traditional mystery series (available August 21, 2012).
I’ve always wanted to go white-water rafting on the Colorado River. Actually, I’ve always wished I had the guts to do such a thing. Guts are exactly what Em Hansen believes she lacks when she faces the river at the start of a month-long white-water rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. But she’s not about to admit her fear to Fritz, the hunk she married six months back, especially since he’s agreed to guide the party of fourteen as a wedding gift to her.
Em is a geologist through and through, and she welcomes excuses to educate her new stepson about the subject. Readers who aren’t so interested in the science can turn some of these pages quickly, but her fourteen-year old stepson cannot. In deference to the religious mother his dad has divorced, Brendan stoically pits his belief in the Biblical flood against the science Em eagerly shares. He takes a while to warm up to her and to all the evidence that dates some of the canyon’s layers at 2 billion years.
Luckily, Andrews weaves scientific discourse about rock formations with descriptions of the majestic canyon and the characters’ journey along the river itself.
I fixed my own gaze on that which always anchored me—the rocks, the bones of Mother Earth—and said, “Sure, kiddo, what do you want to know?” Here the river had carved deeper into the earth, down and down, down below the vertical walls of Redwall Limestone that dominated the upper reaches of the canyon into more complex stuff below. At this wide place in the canyon the palisades of sedimentary rocks stepped away toward the horizon like a giant flight of stairs.
Putting fourteen people who don’t know one another on a month-long wilderness trip is bound to expose a few difficult characters. A middle-aged man who goes by the name Wink poses as a graduate student of geology and an experienced navigator of the Colorado River. Em, whose career in forensic geology has honed her detective instincts, is immediately suspicious.
There was just no way that an Ivy League geologist Ph.D. candidate river rat had ever been an Army Airborne Ranger. Geologists make crappy soldiers on account of we question all authority, including our own. We do not play well enough with the other boys and girls to make it into an elite, tightly knit cadre like the Airborne Rangers. Shout orders at a geologist under fire and you get someone who wants to sit down and open a beer and have a conversation about the plan, parse it down to a gnat’s eyelash, maybe offer up a few alternative concepts, and then do none of the above.
Wink competes for leadership by undermining Fritz, attacking his son, and embarassing Em. Fritz’s justifiable but aggressively temperamental response surprises Em, who, in some pretty uncomfortable circumstances is getting to know a few of her husband’s faults.
The group quickly finds Wink’s sadistic games dispiriting, and they resent the need to spend so much time patching his leaking homemade dory. Furthermore, they can’t quite turn a blind eye when the married Wink shares the tent of one young woman only to replace her with another.
Em is perplexed not only by Wink’s reasons for making the trip, but by his frequent disappearances. He seems inexplicably drawn to a religious group whose trip occasionally overlaps with their own. When the fundamentalists set up camp and hold a revival meeting, Em discovers that Wink has an unusually close relationship with a young and prayerful teenaged girl and her kewpie-doll mother.
As the group confronts increasingly dangerous rapids along the river, they face an increasingly challenging puzzle: A missing man. A dead body. A probable murder.
By peppering the story with transcribed communications between Park Service personnel, Andrews steps up the suspense. Suspicion falls on Fritz, and Em’s forensic skills are put to the test.
The book is a rich mix of contrasts, bigger than the plot itself. Religion and science, romance and betrayal, truth and deception. Em herself moves from scaredy cat to competent rafter, from inadequacy as a mother to a stepson’s mentor. All set in an ancient canyon, where secrets are supposed to fall to the bottom and remain buried.
Lois Karlin writes fiction and blogs at Women of Mystery. In the pursuit of authenticity she’s learned to dag sheep and take down a silo, and knows where to deep six a body in New York’s Hudson Valley.