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Review: The Forest Prime Evil, by Alan Russell

#53: The Forest Prime Evil by Alan Russell:
Redwoods are known for their thick ax-eating bark. Pacific Lumber solved that problem by fighting with water. A high-pressure nozzle propelled jets of water at the bark, striking it with a force of sixteen hundred pounds per square inch. In the course of a minute, twelve hundred gallons of water pounded the bark, flaying it clean. I watched the skinning of a tree behind a safety window. Every bad horror film shows blood spattering up against glass. The pulverized bark splashed my window in just such a way.
Synopsis: An SF PI is hired by a group of Humboldt-based anti-lumber activists to investigate the death of a green co-conspirator, and quickly makes himself persona non grata with them, the lumber companies, a rogue preacher and a dying cancer patient, but charms the pants off the Humboldt PD. So, I guess that makes it about even.



Stuart Winter is lured away from San Francisco and up into the redwoods by a young treehugger who wants him to investigate the death of a leading treehugger. Humboldt at the time is a hotbed of pro- and anti-logging sentiment, so it's entirely plausible that the lumber companies could have snuffed one of the leading green lights. But! As soon as Winter arrives, he determines that said leading light was a bit dim, tarnished by a number of exciting things. Also, that all is not quite Edenic in the treehuggers' encampment.

Let's get one thing straight: Alan Russell loves Northern California.

He loves writing about its history and sending his PI protagonist poking about in all the misty redwood forests and driving forever back and forth along Highway 101, commenting on every small town, forgotten wayside inn and dive bar. It is some very serious placeporn. And you know me, I love my placeporn.

But here is the thing: now I know there is actually such a thing as TOO MUCH PLACEPORN. I know! I am as shocked as you. But it is true, my young onions. If one describes every last leaf and rock and methhead, one runs the risk of one's plot stalling out and writing paragraphs in the third person. It is a terrible danger!

At one point Stuart Winter climbs a huge old-growth redwood to visit the treehugger staying up there. The treehugger is old and sad and spacy and Winter comments, "Sometimes an idea that seems wonderful when conceived, becomes more and more of a millstone over time." And that is an apt summation of this book.

The language is fluid and clean and there are both supporting characters and red herrings, and enough little plot twists that I was very nearly fooled as to whodunit. There are also some plot holes you could in fact fit a redwood in, but it is easy to let them slip away in the interests of interesting supporting characters. The PI is a little too fond of puns and other ways of showing how smart he is, but that's not a major failing. It does make him not very likeable, though.

But overall, a solid and engrossing read. Russell does a really skillful job of showing how everyone has a dark side and everyone has something redeeming about them; there are no true villains, even in the middle of this highly contentious battleground, just conflicted people trying to make the best of things and sometimes making bad decisions. That's a really tough thing to pull off in a story, so I want to make sure Russell gets credit where credit's due. It's also one of my ticklespots, and kept me reading even when the plot dragged.

And to be fair, there was only a little middle drag between large swaths of solid writing. Especially if you like Northern California.
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