Keith McCafferty’s latest book, “Cold Hearted River,” is the sixth in his series of Sean Stranahan mystery novels. The book opens with a harrowing scene that likely has haunted the nightmares of most of us who like to spend time in mountainous backcountry during the fringe seasons of the year.
A married couple, having left home on horseback for a day trip into the mountains, gets caught out overnight in a spring blizzard. The man survives the ordeal, but his wife dies. Bereft and feeling responsible for her death, the man takes his own life after leading law-enforcement personnel to her body.
The dead woman, Freida Tolliver, had a lucrative business selling chandeliers made from shed elk antlers. Hopes of finding fresh antlers shed by bull elk over the months of February and March is what lured the couple out into the mountains in the first place. A discovery in her saddlebags, though, thickens the plot, and potentially ties Tolliver to a series of murders that begin to materialize in the wake of her accidental death. It would indicate she was also selling elk velvet from new antlers to lonely, older men for use as a kind of super aphrodisiac. Think Viagra, without the laboratory.
Sean Stranahan, our fly-fishing private investigator, is pulled into the story because his former lover, Sheriff Martha Ettinger, is in charge of the case. Their navigation of the twists and turns of the story, the unraveling of Tolliver’s secret life, and the pitfalls of Stranahan and Ettinger’s personal relationship are the threads that hold "Cold Hearted River’s" narrative together.
McCafferty, who lives in Bozeman, is distantly basing his mystery on a true story. It concerns the legend of a steamer trunk full of fishing tackle that Ernest Hemingway is said to have lost sometime around 1940. Artifacts from this trunk pop up in strange places during Stranahan’s investigation, possibly as payment for Tolliver’s elk velvet trade, and tracking down their origin leads him from Montana to Wyoming, and then to points more distant, including Michigan and Cuba. McCafferty has done a solid job of imagining how Hemingway’s trunk could have been lost, and what could have happened to its contents. Hemingway buffs will find this aspect of the story particularly entertaining.
Keith McCafferty knows his stuff. Besides being a lifelong outdoorsmen, he has earned a successful career writing magazine articles, and he is the survival and outdoor skills editor for Field and Stream magazine. Those credentials don’t necessarily make for interesting novels, though, and more than once I’ve seen his work described simply as “fly-fishing mysteries.”
Such smug classification is a disservice to McCafferty’s talents. His characters do get on the river once or twice in each book, and there is a core group of recurring secondary characters who form the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club (complete with clubhouse). This crew of angler/philosophers often contribute useful knowledge to Stranahan’s mysteries.
These elements take nothing away from McCafferty’s prose, though, nor the skill in which he tells his stories. His Spur Award in 2016 for Best Contemporary Novel (behind the fourth Stranahan mystery, "Crazy Mountain Kiss") is all the proof a reader should need that the man can write.
"Cold Hearted River" is his best work yet. I do not think a new reader should be shy about reading it as an introduction to McCafferty’s work. Mystery fans, fans of modern day westerns or even just lovers of entertaining, fast-paced stories will find something to like in a Keith McCafferty novel.
"Cold Hearted River" is a perfect place to start.