Writing that flows: Bertsch’s ‘Death Canyon’

river water “I should try to just scribble out a mystery.”

Ever heard that before? I have. I think I've even been guilty of saying that myself. Writing a serious novel is hard, Olympian work, but writing a mystery? Oh, c'mon, anyone can do that. It’s not even writing: it’s just scribbling.

My friends, what I've learned from working on a novel of my own is what you probably already know: No writing is ever just scribbling. It’s all hard work. Any story demands steady commitment (and a kind of madness) to stay focused on it for weeks, months — even years — because you want to get it right. Writing a novel has made me far more humble as a reader and a critic ... and far more careful about the words that I use.

Mystery-writing, I think,  often gets reduced to “scribbling” because there’s a simplicity to the narration -- especially in hard-boiled tales -- that makes it all seem plain and easy. I started thinking about that because of David Riley Bertsch’s “Death Canyon: A Jake Trent Novel” (Scribner), published in mid-August but that I’m only getting to now.  It’s a perfect book for summer — murder and secrets in the great outdoors — but since it’s not summer anymore, I realized something else: It’s a perfect book for anytime, especially if you're in the mood for a lesson about good writing.

When I read, I like to search for the author's biography in between the lines. That’s a complicated thing in some author’s work, but in Bertsch’s novel it was easier to detect. This story is suffused with a love and celebration of the great outdoors that's obvious. Then I turned to the jacket flap and discovered why:

Since 2009, [Bertsch] has lived in Jackson, Wyoming, where he is a professional fly-fishing guide.

Of course he is. How could he NOT be?  (For more about Bertsch, you can visit his author's website.) Some passages about the experiences of Jake, an ex-prosecutor, are so full of bliss and joy that they must be rooted in Bertsch's own experience, like this one:

After he finished setting up his sleeping quarters, Jake pulled the fire pan from the skiff and walked a short way down the island to prepare dinner; not daring to attract bears or other curious predators to his sleeping area with the scent of food. He season the trout with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dill that he kept with his fishing equipment. He opened the bottle of beer he had brought along, and as evening settled further into the river canyon, the dusky ambiance and alcohol lightened Jake's mood. He smiled when he thought of his earlier frustration with the council. Things moved slowly here, and he needed to be patient and persist. Besides, he thought, I moved here to escape external pressures. I'm hard enough on myself.

Think Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” Think of Jake — like H’s Nick Adams — burned by the world and seeking some healing in this beautiful place, Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

And this, mind you, comes in one of those easy-to-scribble mysteries.

This landscape is Eden-like, and soon enough Jake discovers a serpent. He comes upon a corpse, and this death -- along with two more -- are unexpectedly linked. Villains and a development project loom on the horizon.

It’s a great deal to juggle, and some reviews have been lukewarm, but I think that's because those critics have never written books of their own.  If they did, passages like the Hemingway-inspired one would have impressed them. The same goes for the descriptions of the corpses, which Bertsch pulls off without resorting to cliches. Try to write a scene about a dead body and you'll see how hard that is.

In the end, "Death Canyon" is a deftly executed thriller that serves as a simple reminder of something else: Writing’s never easy.