Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Sense of Place: Keith McCafferty and The Gray Ghost Murders

One of the chief things which keeps writers lying in bed awake at night staring at the blank ceiling is the fear they didn't get it right--in this case, "it" meaning setting.  There's nothing worse than writing that Pat's King of Steaks is on the south side of Philadelphia's Passyunk Avenue, when readers in the City of Brotherly Love will immediately point out that it's Geno's Steaks on the south side of that intersection; Pat's is on the north.    (At least, I think I have that right; never having actually stood between those rival cheesesteak joints, I'm having a moment of doubt which is gnawing at me like a dog on a bone--See what I mean?)

To geographically-savvy readers, one wrong detail of landscape can jar them right off the page, deflating the author's credibility.

Mystery writer Keith McCafferty had this kind of paranoia when he was looking at the final page proofs of his second novel, The Gray Ghost Murders, which were due back to his publisher in two days.  Those of us attending his reading at The Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana last night got to hear the story about this last-minute panic.

The opening pages of McCafferty's mystery novel open on the real-life Sphinx Mountain near Ennis, Montana, a distinct fortress of rock rising 10,876 feet off the floor of the Madison Valley.  In The Gray Ghost Murders, a body is discovered in a shallow grave along the steep slopes of the Sphinx.  When local sheriff Martha Ettinger and her team investigate, they find a sow grizzly has been dining on the remains. McCafferty needed to make sure he was painting a good picture of the surrounding forests and clearings in order to maintain the mood of the scene.

"I'd climbed that mountain and walked that very ground," said McCafferty, a long-time Montana resident and Field & Stream contributor who'd often fished the ribbon of river beneath the gaze of the Sphinx.  "But it had been twenty years since I'd been up there.  And yet, here I was, describing it in detail on the page.  I knew if I got one thing wrong, Madison Valley readers would be the first ones to point it out.  It wouldn't matter to the grandmother living in Indiana, but it would definitely be important to someone living in Ennis."

McCafferty had a problem: he was out of time.  The pages were due back to his publisher in two days and nothing could be changed on the page after that.  It was late spring.  Snow was clinging to the side of the mountain.  Bears were coming out of hibernation.  But McCafferty knew he had to Get It Right.

And so he climbed the Sphinx, drinking in the details as he walked.

"I wasn't even a quarter of a mile from the trailhead when I heard this loud chuff off to my left."  It was a grizzly giving him a warning.  The bear was hungry after hibernating all winter.  McCafferty kept walking, but now all his muscles and nerves were on full alert.

"Newspaper headlines were flashing before my eyes: MONTANA MYSTERY WRITER EATEN BY GRIZZLY WHILE RESEARCHING NOVEL.  What a way for me to end up," McCafferty told us.

"At least it would give a boost to your book sales," someone in the audience cracked.

McCafferty laughed.  "That's probably very true."

Fortunately, the next thing McCafferty heard was the snap and crackle of the grizzly moved away from him.  Our intrepid author continued his ascent along the Sphinx, got what he needed, came down the mountain safely, and returned to his manuscript with fresh details in his head.

And that's one way to meet a publisher's deadline.

A few minutes later the team reached the elevation where the slope flattened into a bench, a half acre of scattered trees and conglomerate boulders that were cordoned off with marking tape.  All eyes immediately sought the backpack that Jarrett had suspended from the limb of a Douglas fir tree the day before yesterday.  In it were the two plastic evidence bags, one containing the rib cage and skull that the bear had excavated, along with tatters of rotted clothing and the few odd bones that had been strewn across the bench, the other a jellied mass of dark tissue and organ matter.  Doc Hanson had been in favor of packing the remains down in the Air Mercy flight for examination at the lab, but Ettinger had been adamant about studying the crime scene, if indeed a crime had been committed, with the evidence intact.  Hanson's objection, that a bear had already disrupted the scene, fell on deaf ears.

Sphinx Mountain

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