As a Rocky Mountain News reporter in the early '80s, Mark Stevens covered the end of Bill McNichols' 14-year mayoral career. With the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, he spent time focusing on the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and political upheavals in Latin America. At the Denver Post in the '90s, he followed the "eye-opening" challenges of growth in urban education.
Now, as a 57-year-old mystery writer living in Denver, Stevens is applying that experience to the world of fiction.
His first published series mystery, 2007's Antler Dust, dealt with animal rights and poaching, and the idea of creative suicide, "which is the idea of somebody using their life in terms of a cause," he says. His second in the series, Buried by the Roan, was released last month and tucks into the oil and gas industry and hydraulic fracking — but, carefully.
"I don't think it takes sides," Stevens says, with the air of a well-trained reporter. "I think it just basically uses that as the canvas. There are some characters in there who feel very passionately on both sides."
Shooting in Deckers
The main character in the series is Allison Coil. She's based on a real woman Stevens and his wife met during a daylong horseback ride in the early '90s. "You expect you're going to be guided by some grizzled old whiskered guy, and you might get one word out of him all day and it might be mumbled," he says. "But here was this young, sharp, articulate, smart woman who knew everything about the geology, the animals, the plants, the trees, the water, everything in the Flat Tops [Wilderness Area], and it was just so striking."
Stevens, who'd started writing fiction a few years before, couldn't help but think of this woman as a character possibility. And the same went for the mountainous Western Colorado region around him. Add in the guns that naturally come to this type of environment, and Stevens realized he had himself a mystery in the making.
It would take some research for the guy who says he had "zero" experience with hunting. But fact-finding was something he'd gotten used to as a journalist.
"My brother-in-law and his brother and I went deer hunting down near Deckers one day, and I again took lots of pictures and notes. One brother-in-law killed a deer, and I was there to help dress it and get it out of there. It was enlightening, definitely."
Good enlightening or bad enlightening?
Stevens laughs. "Both. It's not my — I am not a hunter."
Drinking the water
About six months after Antler Dust hit bookshelves, Stevens' former employer, the now-defunct Rocky, published a 13-part series called "Beyond the boom." Its focus was the growth in natural gas drilling and exploration in western Colorado, and the controversy over the natural gas extraction method known as fracking. Stevens was intrigued by all the information and energized to begin the next book in his series.
In Buried by the Roan, fracking becomes the backdrop for a story involving a dead hunter, a character named Devo "who has moved up to the woods to prove to the rest of the world that mankind needs to devolve," and outdoorsmen who are becoming ill as a result of drinking the Flat Tops water.
He's a little hesitant when asked about his personal opinions on fracking — perhaps a holdover from years of mainstream news reporting. Yet once Stevens does get rolling, his voice betrays a passion. He talks about the Environmental Protection Agency and how it once said fracking was OK, and now is pursuing more thorough analysis. He touches on the process and how it's "tearing up prime woods and prime wilderness."
And as he does in Buried by the Roan, he considers the people.
"When you see water faucets being lit on fire by a match and you hear testimony about people and their health issues in and around this — I mean, I know you just can't sit there and watch it and know for sure there is a connection, but it seems to me that this is something that's happening wherever there's fracking," Stevens says.
For his part, he adds, "I'd rather be on the side of the questioners than those standing there saying, 'Don't worry, everything will be fine.' That doesn't make sense to me."