Reading Time: 3 minutes
Toni Dwiggens book, Badwater, reminds me so much of what I love about Tony Hillerman’s detective stories. First, there is the desert. In this case Death Valley, with its unrelenting rules of heat and exhaustion, as well as its unforgiving nature. Then there are Dwiggens’ sun baked cast of characters, each with their own motives and secrets — all of them entangled by a rolled over semi carrying high energy radioactive waste. Finally, there is Dwiggens high stakes thriller of a third act — another hallmark of great mystery writers. It is easy to be reminded of Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee as Dwiggens’ heroine Cassie Oldfield follows the clues which lead to her quarry, but what a difference in the clues. Cassie and her mentor and partner, Walter Shaws, track down the bad guys using soil samples and geological know-how instead of more traditional methods.
The book begins with Cassie and Walter being taken in the middle of the night by helicopter to a site where their particular consulting expertise is required by the FBI. When they arrive, they are guided to an area separate from the crime scene and introduced to the perils of Mr. Alpha, Mr. Beta, and Mr. Gamma. For the rest of the book, these gentlemen continuously dog our heroes as they try to track down casks of missing radioactive waste. Each encounter prompts a tense scramble to make sure that no one receives a dose which would kill them. However, if the doses don’t get them, then the oppressive heat of death valley just might.
Dwiggens’ strong suit is definitely her lead character. I appreciated the authenticity of Cassie Oldfield. Dwiggens’ felt no need to make her too much more than a normal young woman who works to solve the puzzles set for her by the soil samples she collects. She is neither overly strong nor demure. She feels comfortable, truthful in her humanness.
None of this is to say that Dwiggens work wouldn’t benefit from a good editor, as would most self-published work. There are typos here and there, and at times, who is speaking was not clear, especially at the front end of the book. An editor could have helped with these details, allowing Dwiggens novel the polish which it lacks at some points. In this book, Dwiggens is clearly a novel writer still in the midst of finding her writers legs. Some members of the cast of characters which surround Oldfield are not as strong as Oldfield, and that fact can telegraph which characters are important and which are not. There was also a moment in which I wondered if a potential disaster of this magnitude would have generated a response far larger than the one which Dwiggens chooses from the federal authorities. But her weaknesses are mostly technical. They are things that can be worked on in time. None of these small imperfections should stop you from enjoying Badwater, especially for the generous reader willing to overlook little foibles.
In sum, Badwater provides readers a satisfying read with great pacing, a break neck concluding act, and a great lead character. Lovers of thrillers and mysteries with a scientific bent will find here a comfortable familiarity and a new heroine, who hopefully has many more adventures to come.
A review copy was provided to Erik Wecks by the author.