Tahoe Blue Fire
Thriller Press 2015
Kindle $3.99 Trade paper $16.95
Todd Borg creates multifaceted puzzles in his Owen McKenna mystery series, but he also knows how to scare the pants off you. The first chapter of Tahoe Blue Fire begins with a description of “…single-purpose machines built like tall, square locomotives, big boxy monsters that prowled the highways at night.” These giant, diesel-fired snow blowers with twin engines producing nearly 2,000 horsepower have massive, sharp blades designed to cut snow as deep as 12 feet. Imagine a train-size snow blower as a murder weapon and have a good idea how the story starts.
This thirteenth installment of the series could be the best of all. The book evokes different emotions and combines erudition, intrigue, violence and sorrow. Ex-San Francisco PD detective-turned Lake Tahoe PI, Owen McKenna, hits the ground running searching for someone who has killed at least three people—apparently at random—and now has his sights on McKenna. The first half of the book crackles with suspense and impending doom. It’s almost (but not quite) mild compared to the book’s scary concluding scenes.
It’s a layered plot in which Owen must first determine connections between the victims, then search for a motive. Neither come easily. Without giving away too much of the plot, the solution involves the Italian Renaissance, well-known 1950s and 1960s movie icons and traumatic brain injury (TBI), a condition suffered by one of the book’s several memorable characters.
Ex-pro football player Adam Simms is the victim of TBI, the fancy term for having his brains scrambled during a career marked by hundreds of collisions. Simms is a semi-invalid, mentally weak, physically still strong. He works to overcome frequent seizures by writing poetry. Simms plays several roles in the Tahoe story.
Other characters to watch for include an ailing mob boss and his henchman, an elderly souvenir collector, and Giovanni Drago, an Italian professor upon whom Owen and girlfriend Street Casey use a unique form of blackmail to obtain his help. Two other stars are Spot, of course, Owen’s 170-pound Great Dane and newcomer, Blondie, a golden retriever with a special talent.
Amid the violence and occasional heartbreak in the story, Owen demonstrates why he is a contemplative as well as capable PI. In a characteristic moment of reflection while he watches Simms in the midst of a seizure, he is “overwhelmed with sympathy and empathy, and the callousness of living each day of my life never considering that I had been given a thousand gifts that I had not earned. I hoped I had the sense to remember him [Simms] the next time I judged someone whose shoes I hadn’t hiked in and whose life I hadn’t witnessed up close.”
And as a tiny, but noteworthy addendum, Borg engenders admiration for using the word enormity correctly. Many don’t.
Tahoe Blue Fire has the ups and downs, perilous and pensive moments as the author’s other novels, but this one is a shining star. Make that five stars.