The Cardinal Divide was born of too much beer and not enough sun during a two-week vacation in Costa Rica in 2003. It was November and it rained nearly every day I was there. The lawn surrounding my tiny cabina became a shin-deep lake and red ants by the thousands invaded the airy hut, giving me something to do with my vacation time. Between bouts of fruitless struggle to prevent the formicidae invasion and mopping up after storm surges, I sat on the deck, drank cervaza Imperial, and read half a dozen damp and worn paperback mystery novels bought or traded from local vendors.
It wasn’t my first foray into the mystery genre. Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers was a gift from my colleagues at Grand Canyon National Park in 1994, and I read it on the inhumanly long journey home from the southwest that spring. For years I associated long cross-continental plane trips with Tony Hillerman books: stories just long enough to get me from Calgary to Toronto or back. My friend Paul Novitski gave me a Nevada Barr mystery in 2001, and I read a bunch of her excellent Anna Pigeon mysteries that year as well. I love James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series. But on the Costa Rica trip, I read The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Saunders and became hooked on the genre.
I started to think about what I might have to contribute to the mass of murder mysteries crowding the shelves of used bookstores. I’ve been writing since 1988, seriously trying to get published since 1993 or so. I always imagined myself as a composer of literary essays on the relationship between people and nature, or the writer of a desperately sad, tragic work of fiction in which the protagonist reveals something core to the nature of the human condition before succumbing to a broken heart.
While I didn’t see myself penning a mystery about a mine, I have been trying to stop mines from being dug in beautiful wilderness areas for the last twenty years. In 2003 the effort to stop the Cheviot Coal Mine from being dug on the northern side of the Cardinal Divide, just east of Jasper National Park, was one of the most important environmental challenges in Alberta. I had first become involved in this fight in 1995 when, as a freshman member of the Board of Directors of the Alberta Wilderness Association, I heard Ben Gadd and Dianne Pachal talk about the new plans for the mine. The Cardinal Divide had been much on my mind since I had first walked along its gently sloping, sinuous summit some years back.
Sitting on the porch of my cabina in Costa Rica in 2003, knocking back Imperials, I started to piece some thoughts together: Could I find a way to tell a story about a cherished, beautiful place in a way that might appeal to someone other than an armchair activist or closet environmentalist? Could I do it so that the novel didn’t simply rant against coal mining, but actually told a good story?
I remember something my friend and fellow writer Greer Chesher once told me when I worked for her at Grand Canyon National Park: “You have to have a plot.” Fiction can’t simply be a new, shiny vessel in which to carry around my polemic. As an activist, I’m always searching for new ways to interest the public in an important issue. As a writer, I’m always looking for a new story to tell while delivering a poignant message.
As I sat there, watching the Caribbean Sea, I let the issue, the landscape, and the story slowly congeal in my head.
The flight back was long and, late at night on the silent plane, I sat with a tiny notebook and jotted down the names of the characters: Cole Blackwater, Nancy Webber, Dale van Stempvort, Mike Barnes…. I wrote down the events of the fictional opening crime, and then I crafted the story around the truth that would make the book a mystery. By the time I had defrosted my aging Toyota pickup at the Calgary airport at 2 am, The Cardinal Divide filled two dozen pages in my little notebook. It would occupy my mind, and keep my fingers moving, for the next five years.