Unless you like camping in winter, now would be the best time to read Sallie Bissell’s debut novel. You will want to devour this heart-stopping tale in plenty of time to recover before you spend your next night in the woods. What Jaws did for innocent days at the beach, In the Forest of Harm threatens to do for camping trips.
Bissell, who divides her time between her native Nashville, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C., has created a compelling newcomer in the world of crime fiction with her protagonist, Mary Crow, a Native American and the hottest assistant district attorney in Atlanta.
As the novel opens, Crow has just won a contentious murder trial. Needing a break from work, she decides to invite her two best friends to go camping with her in the Nantahala National Forest, near the North Carolina-Tennessee border. But this trip is more than just a way to unwind after the rigors of a difficult conviction. The Nantahala was Crow’s childhood home. She has not been back to visit in 12 years, not since April 1988 when she came home after school one day and found her mother brutally murdered. The case has never been solved.
Amidst the emotional turmoil of returning to her old neighborhood, Crow and her friends from Atlanta do not suspect that they are the targets of two separate killers, both seeking vengeance for real and imaginary offenses. In short order, the women’s camping trip turns into a struggle for survival.
One of the killers has followed Crow from Atlanta, intent on murdering the zealous prosecutor. But at the same time he is stalking the women, they are also being hunted by an evil backwoods maniac who makes the villains in Deliverance look like the Keebler elves. Abduction, rape, torture, slicing and dicing for kicks–this guy does it all, in gory detail that is not for the squeamish.
There is another threat to the women, though, and it is one of the novel’s most spine-tingling elements. With a deft hand, Bissell captures the beauty and unforgiving power of the deep wilderness. Lost and wounded, the women must survive not only the murderous men, but the brooding austerity of the mountains. Anyone who has roamed away from the popular trails and campsites to rough it deep in the ancient forests of the Smokies will appreciate Bissell’s portrayal–the silent, eerie emptiness, where squirrels and birds are rare, and even seasoned experts can be lost forever. There is almost a malevolence to the forest, from the seductive, disastrous isolation of the women’s camp at Atagahi Springs to the miles of tangled laurel, that the locals simply call, “Hell.”
“She picked her way through the first spindly plants,” writes Bissell, “then the leaves grew thicker, the branches more confining. Beneath them, the air smelled pungent, choked with rotting vegetation. She started having to shoulder her way between the reluctant branches, then she had to turn sideways to penetrate them at all.”
On every page, without once interrupting the rollercoaster suspense, Bissell inserts details that make the darkly gorgeous mountains devastatingly real. Even in the midst of the most gruesome perils that befall the women, she brings to life the Christmas tree scent of hemlocks, fuchsia sunsets, slippery shale rocks crumbling under bare feet, the hair-raising cry of a hawk on its killing dive.
In her quick, uncluttered style, Bissell also perfectly captures the small towns and outposts in the Cherokee hills, the hardship and hope of mountain life. It is through this lens that we learn more of Mary Crow’s past and her Indian heritage, but perhaps not as much as we would like. In some ways, the horrific details of the women’s ordeal overshadow their development as real characters, as if it were more important for the reader to sense their misery at being forced to trudge naked through stickerbushes than to have an empathetic understanding of who they are.
Hopefully, in future novels, Bissell will remedy that, as more Mary Crow adventures are planned. In the meantime, be ready to go camping with your cell phone handy, because it is Bissell’s wild forest that resonates long after the last page is turned.