cover image Bearskin


James A. McLaughlin. Ecco, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-274279-7

As taut as a crossbow and as sharp as an arrowhead, McLaughlin’s debut unfolds in the Appalachian wilderness of Virginia, a landscape whose heart of darkness pulses viscerally through its characters. Rice Moore is working as a biologist caretaker at the vast Turk Mountain Preserve when he discovers that poachers are killing bears to sell their organs on overseas drug markets. Rice’s efforts to curtail their activities antagonizes locals who raped the last caretaker and left her for dead, and—worse—it alerts agents of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, from which Rice has been fleeing for reasons revealed gradually, to his whereabouts. McLaughlin skillfully depicts Rice, revealing quirks and peculiarities of his personality that show how “his hold on what he’d always believed was right and what was wrong had grown fatigued, eventually warping to fit the contours of the world he inhabited”—a disconcerting revelation that helps establish the suspenseful feeling that anything can happen. Rice’s story builds toward violent confrontations with the poachers, the cartel, and nature itself. The novel’s denouement, a smoothly orchestrated confluence of the greater and lesser subplots, plays out against a tempest-tossed natural setting whose intrinsic beauty and roughness provide the perfect context for the story’s volatile events. This is a thrilling, thoroughly satisfying debut. (June)