Thursday, December 12, 2013

Truth as Solid As Rock

Ecology and murder in Death Valley

Review: BadwaterQuicksilver and Volcano Watch by Toni Dwiggins

These are a unique trio of novels about Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw, forensic geologists. Even though I originally read these three thrilling books by Toni Dwiggins in the opposite order, I would recommend reading in the order given below. 


I'm not much of a mystery fan, perhaps because mysteries too often require one to focus on the human reactions. Mediocre mystery writers find it hard to imbue their characters with enough life to allow such reading.

That's not Toni Dwiggins; not only are her human characters fully realized, but there is a whole set of non-human entities to gauge in order to solve the mystery. In Badwater, bats, rocks, canyons, mines, weather and the desert itself are recruited to present a complex thriller of stolen radioactive waste.

What I loved about this novel was the reality of these extra characters - there really exists such weather, such canyons and roads, such wildlife and history, in wonderful Death Valley. By the time you recognize the forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw (and as a geological engineer, I've met them several times before, though under different names!), you're already well involved in the thrilling story.

I enjoyed it very much, and will gladly read anything more by Dwiggins.

Quicksilver: Fascinating, Terrifying, Like Playing with Mercury

When I was a child, my parents were puzzled by the way thermometers kept disappearing in our house. Little did they know that my siblings and I loved to play with the silvery liquid that poured out of them once they were broken! And little did we know that we were playing with a killer...

Toni Dwiggins brings that fascination and danger to life in Quicksilver, a novel that, like Badwater, mingles mining history, eco-terror and deep knowledge of rocks and human frailties. And, yes, there was plenty of toxic mercury released into the environment in the bad old days of gold mining - but the lure of the gold is still strong, as the characters in this novel make clear.

Cassie Oldfield herself is not immune to that lure, nor is her partner Walter Shaw. Yet for the forensic geologists, I believe it is closer to the Spell of the Yukon as made explicit by Robert W. Service:

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting,
And it's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as it's finding the gold.

Stunning story, great geology - another winner from Toni Dwiggins!

(Since this review was written, Dwiggins has added the Service quote as an epigraph to the paperback version.)

It's a common idea in vulcanology: extinct volcanoes aren't.

The magma chamber may be too deep or too cool to concern us on the surface, the pressure may be adequately relieved by vents elsewhere in a field, but if a volcano has erupted once, there is always a potential for it to erupt again. Toni Dwiggins takes the "extinct" volcano that formed the crater in which Mammoth Lake, CA, is located, and spins it into a threat to the hometown of Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaw, forensic geologists.

It isn't only the volcano that is heating up - tensions within the town threaten to derail sensible efforts to evacuate or combat the potential for eruption. If you've ever lived in a small town with one or two industries (especially seasonal industries), the political infighting in this novel will ring true!

Once again, in Volcano Watch Dwiggins has provided an intensely satisfying thriller that combines a human and a geologic threat with edge-of-the-seat pacing. The level of scientific explanation was just right for me, while the way she incorporated volcanic precursors and eruptive action was realistic.

What in the world could come next for Cassie and Walter? I can't wait!