In Christine Carbo’s exciting suspense novel Mortal Fall, a wildlife biologist’s shocking death leads to chilling discoveries about a home for troubled teens in this haunting and compelling new crime novel set in the wilds of Glacier National Park.
Park police officer Monty Harris knows that each summer at least one person—be it a reckless, arrogant climber or a distracted hiker—will meet tragedy somewhere in the rugged confines of the park. But Paul “Wolfie” Sedgewick’s fatal fall from the sheer cliffs near Going-To-the-Sun Road is incomprehensible. Wolfie was an experienced and highly regarded wildlife biologist who knew all too well the perils that Glacier’s treacherous terrain presents—and how to avoid them.
The case, so close to home, has frayed park employee emotions. Yet calm and methodical lead investigator Monty senses in his gut that something isn’t right. So when whispers of irresponsibility or suicide emerge, tarnishing Wolfie’s reputation, Monty dedicates himself to uncovering the truth, for the sake of the man’s family and to satisfy his own persistent sense of unease.
Monty discovers that Wolfie’s zealous studies of Glacier’s mysterious, embattled wolverine population, so vital to park ecology, had met resistance, both local and federal. To muddy the waters further, a wilderness facility for rehabilitating troubled teens—one that Monty’s older brother attended—may have a disturbing connection to the case. As Monty delves further into an investigation that goes deeper than he ever imagined, he wrestles with the demons of his past, which lead back to harsh betrayals he thought he’d buried long ago.
And then a second body is found.
It didn’t take me long to realize that author Christine Carbo is an outdoors lover like the rest of us. She knows her gear. She knows Leave No Trace. She knows trail etiquette and the 10 Essentials. She understands the important conservation work done by national park botanists and wildlife biologists. But beyond that she knows climbing and rappelling, boating, camping… just about anything having to do with wilderness and loving Nature.
So too does she love Glacier National Park. Being a local, it comes naturally. But as you read through Mortal Fall you realize she knows the geography and topography like all the lines on her hand. I’ve only been to Glacier once, a two day visit more than 25 years ago, but I remember the raw beauty… and the breathtaking danger. You never forget the magnificent sights of one of this continent’s most compelling locations, and Carbo’s descriptions immediately placed fond remembered images in my head. An example:
I glanced up to Heaven’s Peak again, then up Logan Pass to the panorama surrounding it. The Crown of the Continent stood massive and indifferent, beautiful, and rugged. A place where time loses its significance and history shoots up out of the ground, its presence overwhelming and demanding, making you feel useless and small. The biologist
—trying to understand the near-mythical creature [wolverine] known for its toughness and resilience, but threatened by the loss of the glacial snowfields necessary for its winter dens
—was now officially done with his research. Officially done with his life, his family. The finality of it was every bit as humbling as the peaks towering above us.
It is that sudden death of “Wolfie” that is so difficult for lead investigator Monty Harris to understand. Veteran wilderness researchers just don’t make mistakes like falling off a cliff… and Wolfie had too much good going on at home to thrust himself over the perilous edge. No, something simply wasn’t right about this, and Monty was determined to conduct his inquiry properly.
Juxtapose that with the impatient Park Superintendent, whose primary motivation is making the sightseers happy, and you have a race to collect evidence and a clash of agendas. After all, what flip-flop wearing, camera toting, pale skinned tourist will visit a national park where bodies are being found smashed on the granite below Glacier’s famous overlooks?
Clues in the case are disturbing reminders of Monty’s troubled past with a bullying older brother, an alcoholic father, and a bipolar mom… the textbook dysfunctional family. The seemingly perfect marriage and family enjoyed by Wolfie are in stark contrast to Monty’s strained and failing separation from his own wife. Despite all the relationship hurdles in his way, Monty has managed to progress through the ranks of Park Police to become lead investigator for Wolfie’s tragic death. Keeping the success of his current life and the decay of his past from colliding makes his task all the more cumbersome.
Between a meddling Superintendent, a nettlesome estranged wife, and a decades-long abhorrent antagonism with his brother, blockades are thrown in Monty’s path at every turn. Even his own motivations become suspect in Monty’s ever-wandering thought processes. When standing up to belligerent anti-government thugs, Monty flourishes, expelling his past meekness and gullibility. With all the challenges whirling through Monty’s existence, he manages to keep his eye on the job, sometimes in spite of himself. Carbo intertwines all of the anxiety into Monty’s path with adept precision:
I thought of my brother and felt a wave of self pity come over me. All these years later and he was still messing with me. I felt foolish for taking pity upon him while looking into the past events at Glacier Academy. I hadn’t seen him for four years and suddenly I find he’s been poking around [estranged wife] Lara’s and my separation like a mountain lion sniffing out a weakness and going in for the attack, helping to put the fatal bite in our marriage.
By weaving all of these relationship barriers into the story, along with the majestic setting, Carbo has penned a lot more than your average murder mystery. She presents a skillful novel of suspense that involves not only solving the crimes that have disturbed Glacier’s fantasy, but also enables Monty Harris to exorcise past weakness, replacing it with a stronger, if uncertain, future. Monty is an immediately likable character, if only for his myriad flaws. But we are also witness to the enviable good in his spirit.
Mortal Fall was immediately enjoyable to follow for me, because of its ties to the Great Outdoors. As I turned the pages, scene after scene, description after description, I could relate. As I read the words, thoughts bounced around my head like, “I’ve done that. I have experienced that. Carbo gets it. She has been there too.” The book then became like a campfire story. Carbo had me engaged. Once reeling me in, the suspense of the mystery then made Mortal Fall a page turner. A great combination.
Christine Carbo’s wonderful depictions of Glacier National Park and the surrounding national forests and wilderness made me long for a return. It has been nearly three decades since I last visited the area. I think it’s probably time for a repeat appearance. Some of the best hiking in all of the northern Rockies is within close proximity of this national treasure, and my scant few days there hardly do the amazing scenery justice.
I relished Mortal Fall so much, that I now plan to purchase Carbo’s debut novel The Wild Inside.
Christine Carbo grew up in Gainesville, Florida, then moved to Kalispell, Montana when she was twelve. After earning a pilot’s license, pursuing various adventures in Norway, and a brief stint as a flight attendant, she got an MA in English and Linguistics and taught writing, linguistics, and literature courses at a community college. She still teaches, in a vastly different realm, as the owner of a Pilates studio. She and her husband live in Whitefish, Montana, with their three kids, one incredibly silly dog, and one very self-possessed cat.
Her love of Glacier National Park inspired both Mortal Fall and her first novel, The Wild Inside, which was published in early 2015 by Atria Books. The endeavor of writing has been an amazing journey for Christine, filled with all the necessary binary operations in life: self-doubt and self-belief, pain and joy, frustration and contentment, sadness and happiness, defeat and hope.