What I’m Reading: Red Flag Warning

A couple years ago somebody got me the book The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, because the person knew “I like history books.”  At first this seemed like a terrible choice.  Sure, I like history, but a book about a forest fire in Idaho a century ago, in the early days of the Forest Service and the National Parks System?  Sounded like a snoozer.  But how wrong I was!  The Big Burn was so well-written, so tense and dramatic, that I easily count it among one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

It was with that in mind that I turned to fellow Writer of Chantilly Melanie Florence.  One of my writing/reading goals for this year is to read something by all the WoC writers with books out, and her recently self-published book, Red Flag Warning, claims on its cover to “showcase the realities of wildfires in our western forests today.”  This seemed like it might be a good fictional companion to the Big Burn.  And it is!

There are really three layers of story interest: First, a murder mystery.  Our heroine, Sophia, works on a Forest Service field crew as a botanist.  One of the other women on the field crew, a soil expert named Jackie, is resented among other crew members for her laziness and drinking on the job.  But when she turns up dead from poisoning on one of their work sites, suspicion centers on the crew members–especially Sophia, with whom she had recently clashed.

Two, the story takes place against the backdrop of a series of wide-ranging forest fires in eastern Oregon.  It’s mid-summer, and this area of Oregon has suffered seven years of drought.  Huge, acreage-destroying fires flare up with the flick of a cigarette butt or a spark from a metal tool.  Sophia’s husband, Gerald, works on a fire crew and puts his life in danger with every new conflagration.  Not surprisingly, as she works in the woods, the threat of fire is ever-present for Sophia herself, as well. The plot points and descriptions here are comparable to the Big Burn.

Finally, the book gives us fascinating descriptions of Sophia’s life as a botanist on a field crew for the Forest Service. I had never previously known or really thought about a job like this, but the book gives us a realistic portrayal of what such a position entails, working the details in organically with the rest of the plot.  This actually turned out to be probably my favorite part, as it’s always fun to see other people’s jobs.

The book could be classified as a “cozy mystery” but it ratchets up the tension and drama effectively by the end.  Melanie knows what she’s doing and after a somewhat slow start, Red Flag Warning becomes a page-turner by about halfway through.  If I have one complaint, it’s that there were two many characters.  I believe for verisimilitude’s sake, she made Sophia’s field crew the size of a real field crew.  However, many of these characters blended into one another, especially the guys: Randy, Butch, and Aaron.  I think it would have been more effective if these three had been condensed to one or two more sharply-drawn characters.

All in all, an entertaining book that I think cozy mystery fans would enjoy, and would also interest anyone who likes the Big Burn and wants to learn more about the phenomenon of Western wildfires.

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