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The Gorge
It is not yet spring in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Whitewater rafting season has already begun, however. Streams filled with snowmelt are pouring into the Hudson Gorge, an almost inaccessible twelve-mile canyon. But someone who knows every foot of the backcountry is stalking those who are attempting to run the Gorge as the river reaches flood stage. Richard Carlyle, a former raft guide and veteran criminologist working with state and local police, is desperately searching for the person who has murdered two people already. Tracking the killer to a remote cabin in the Gorge, Carlyle confronts an ecoterrorist with a grudge against anyone who dares to invade his territory.
This sharply crafted outdoor suspense debut introduces smart, no-nonsense criminology professor Richard Carlyle, who keeps a toe in his beloved central New York river rafting community by guiding the occasional guide trip for a friend’s outfitter company. When two seasoned guides meet fatal accidents within the same week of flood season, Carlyle takes on the role of investigator to discover who is sabotaging his friend’s outfitter operation. Carlyle brings to the case his specialized knowledge of how perpetrators think, the river gorge’s geography, and his own intuition, as well as his hard-earned credibility among the rafting community and the toughness it takes to face wilderness tracking work himself.

Carlyle is an appealing hero, with convincing and engaging relationships with the outfitters and guides who join him on the rafting trips his investigation entails. The antagonist, motivated by the outfitter’s overreach in developing the area, also proves compelling, taking actions that, though extreme, make enough internal sense to stir in readers an uncomfortable frisson of relatability, even as they root for Carlyle’s crew to end his schemes. Carlyle’s relationship with his wife, though, strains plausibility, as he mostly leaves in the dark about the details of this dangerous work.

Berger’s love of nature and deep knowledge of river rafting shines throughout the novel. His prose is invitingly rich without being overwrought, and readers drawn to the theme of rafting will be satisfied by his arresting and accurate description and action. Berger also eschews jargon and extraneous technical detail, offering a story that’s inviting to readers without a rafting background as well. Devotees of police procedurals may find the dynamics on the law enforcement side in this story somewhat vague, though the climactic scene in which Carlyle gets to negotiate is in classic style for the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of backwoods suspense will find this thriller strikes the perfect balance of tense excitement and opportunities for testing their deductive skills.

Great for fans of: Peter Heller’s The River, Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

Berger (The Most Necessary Luxuries: The Mercers’ Company of Coventry, 1550–1680) effectively makes use of his experience as a licensed whitewater raft guide in his impressive fiction debut, set in the Adirondack Mountains. When the Hudson Gorge, “one of the toughest whitewater runs in the northeast,” becomes the scene of two murders for an unclear motive, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation taps Richard Carlyle, a professor of the history of crime who was once a guide on the river, to investigate the deaths of two guides, Art Sanders and Chris Blake. They died in apparent drowning accidents in less than a week, but evidence soon surfaces that foul play was involved. The netting that should have kept Sanders from being swept out of his boat was cut, and a log was moved into Blake’s path, striking him in the face and knocking him into the river. Berger inserts scenes from the unnamed killer’s perspective, ratcheting up the tension. Paul Doiron fans will be pleased. (Self-published)