“The River’s Tale” is a suspenseful, highly readable mystery set in the Adirondack High Peaks and the daunting whitewater of the upper Hudson River.
This is the second mystery by Michael Virtanen, who works in Albany as an Associated Press reporter covering state politics and courts.
As “The River’s Tale” opens, Alison Reade, a graduate student in New York City, is being stalked by Will Palmer, her ex-boyfriend. Will held her prisoner; Alison escapes and decides to disappear before Will’s violence escalates.
‘The River’s Tale’
AUTHOR: Michael Virtanen
PUBLISHED BY: Lost Pond Press (152 pages)
HOW MUCH: $14.95
Alison slips out of her apartment, heads to Penn Station and boards a train to Albany, where she calls her Aunt Lottie, an independent-minded naturalist who lives on the Hudson River near Newcomb.
Lottie comes to Albany and brings Alison to her cabin. Both women expect the cabin’s remoteness, Lottie’s two dogs, a shotgun, hunting bow and protective neighbors will keep Will away.
A week after arriving, Alison is invited on a whitewater rafting trip by Wallace Lafleur, a river guide and a friend of Lottie’s. During the trip, Wallace and Alison hit it off and she starts working for him. Then, they become romantically involved.
As the book progresses, Virtanen introduces two suspenseful plot lines. Will does his sleazy, sneaky best to search out Alison’s refuge and a woman on a trip with another rafting company drowns. The drowning allows Virtanen to bring back Jack Kirkland, the insurance investigator who was the main character in “Within a Forest Dark,” the author’s first mystery.
The manner in which Virtanen resolves the plot lines is as exhilarating as riding through the upper Hudson’s rapids.
Virtanen is a capable writer. His writing has a visual quality to it; a reader could see these books as television episodes or a movie.
“The River’s Tale” and “Within a Dark Forest” are short books, under 200 pages. This brevity harkens back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery novels, which were also short, filled with memorable characters and a firm sense of place.
The characters in “The River’s Tale” are well-developed. Alison is not a perfect person and has some quirks. Virtanen writes about all of his characters, even sleazy Will, with respect and understanding. By creating Alison, a psychology student who is being stalked, Virtanen can explore the human psyche, the state of modern romance and educate readers about domestic violence.
In a few short sentences, Conan Doyle could make the imaginary address of 221B Baker Street real or bring to life fog-shrouded London streets. Virtanen does something similar for the Adirondacks.
Here’s how he describes what Alison experiences when she rises before dawn to prepare for rafting: “She felt their ancient force: water from the mountain heading to the sea. It was peaceful. The smell was clean, faintly metallic, different from that of the loamy woods. ... She watched the water moving past, its dark surface glistening under starlight, framed by the blackness of the forest.”
Although Virtanen clearly loves the Adirondacks — and the strenuous life that Wallace and Alison are living — he is realistic about the region. In a fireside conversation between Jack Kirkland and Wallace, for example, Virtanen lays out the many challenges of making a living serving tourists in a beautiful place.
Rafting in the upper Hudson is a popular pastime. But if you are leery of rapids or do not have the time to float the river this year, you will like this book. Virtanen’s accounts of rafting trips are so vivid that the roar of the river rises from the page and you feel the spray of the rapids as you turn the pages.
Michael Virtanen will sign copies of “The River’s Tale” from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady.