In his new National Park Mystery series, “Arches Enemy,” local author Scott Graham takes his hero to the area of Moab, Utah.
Chuck Bender of Bender Archaeological has arrived in the fall. He is working on a contract for the Arches Park chief ranger that entails mapping a secret site, a cavern with an amazing discovery that could help reinstate the original boundaries of the National Parks of the Southwest Four Corners.
On what is supposed to be a simple, two-week project, Chuck has brought along his wife, Janelle Ortega, and his stepdaughters, Carmelita (13) and Rosie (11). Janelle is 15 years his junior and is a part-time paramedic with Durango Fire and Rescue. Chuck wants his family to experience the wonder that is Arches Park. They are staying in a small trailer among a group of seniors with large, fancy RVs at Devil’s Garden Campground.
A few days after arriving, the thumping of a seismic truck located just outside the boundaries of the park seems to have caused a catastrophe. A sharp crack, then the thunderous sound of tons of rock impacting the earth, make the Benders run outside to discover that Landscape Arch has fallen. This famous arch is considered the “crown jewel” of Devil’s Garden and is the longest arch in North America. Its demise is staggering, but not as horrific as what Janelle and Chuck discover when they get close.
Apparently, a woman had been on the top of the arch when it collapsed, even though it is against park rules. The Benders call 911, and Chuck is quick to conclude that impacts from the “thumper truck” killed the woman, while Janelle believes it was an accident. This begins an adventure of twists and turns that sees bodies collecting in a number of accidents too large for such a small area.
In the middle of all this drama, Chuck has to deal with his mother, Sheila, who has just reappeared in his life after five years. To say that she was never Mother of the Year is a gross understatement. Sheila has been living in Moab for six months and has ingrained herself into Moab’s culture as a seer. Her influence on the characters in the area is shocking to Chuck along with her new-improved lifestyle. Sheila’s appearance in the tangled events that are happening in the park makes it hard on Chuck while he tries to unravel this mystery.
Chuck’s job soon takes a backseat to events involving efforts to protect the natural setting, which is the cultural heritage and sacred lands of Native Americans of the Southwest. In addressing environmental concerns of the New West, author Graham highlights the hazards of development and extracting minerals from the earth, much as CJ Box does in his Joe Pickett series. It seems that the battle of old versus new in the American West is fertile ground for stories that educate while entertaining readers with suspense and mystery.
Throughout the novel, Graham has woven references to Edward Abbey and his influential and iconic works of “Desert Solitaire” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
Abbey was a part-time ranger at this park and helped make people aware of the need to save natural places. These books have had a great influence in activating environmental groups.
In “Arches Enemy,” Graham has done an amazing job in depicting Arches Park. It is almost a personal tour for readers and is accurate in his portrayal of the landscape. Graham also brings to light some of the issues facing our national parks. For example, cats and dogs have been discarded or lost and become feral, homeless people have moved into the parks and then people who abuse the pristine and natural beauty as well.
“Arches Enemy” is one of Graham’s best works to date. The blended family interplay, the tense mystery, the characters and the setting make it a must-read.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.