Book review: Outdoor sleuth catches more than fish
Fiction • 'The Gray Ghost Murders' is the second in outdoor mystery series.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is often said that the life of any fishing guide could easily be turned into a novel. Some obviously are more colorful than others.

Longtime Field & Stream magazine writer Keith McCafferty resisted picking a real personality for his first novel, The Royal Wulff Murders. Instead he created Sean Stranahan, a completely fictional fishing guide.

In The Gray Ghost Murders, the second book in McCafferty's series, Stranahan once again is called into action between stints on the some of the most recognized fly-fishing waters in the country. This sometime sleuth is asked to help investigate two graves far from a trailhead. At the same time, he must figure out what may have happened to a valuable collector's fly that went missing from a cabin on the Madison River.

As he builds friendships with the local law enforcement, Stranahan forms new relationships with members of The Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club.

The fishing guide/detective eventually realizes the two cases may be linked in a seemingly innocent way. From that point, the cases pick up speed and lead to an intense ending.

And, just to keep things interesting, Stranahan — who was rocked by a bad relationship in the first novel — finally works up enough courage to ask the bikini-clad woman at the drive-through coffee shop on a date. She says yes and provides her own bit of mystery.

While the language of the book will easily be recognized by fly fishers, McCafferty is able to include nonfishing readers with his strong characters and solid plot.

"I like works of fiction populated by characters and I wanted hunting and fishing to come across as natural, healthy pursuits that are just a part of life for the people of Montana," said McCafferty, who came up with the Sean Stranahan character while on a three-night survival trip in subfreezing temperatures.

McCafferty, who is widely recognized as a survival specialist and do-it-yourself elk hunter for the outdoor magazine, said he always wanted to do a mystery novel, but making a living always got in the way.

"My mother was a librarian and she bought me the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. It was so heavy it would leave a dent on my chest at night when I read it," said McCafferty, who grew up in the Appalachian hills of southeastern Ohio and now lives in Montana. "Some parts of writing a mystery came easy for me, but the hardest part was the plotting. I'm just not one of those people who can write an outline. I had an idea and I just started writing."

Like many writers, McCafferty's characters are a collection of memories from numerous people he has met — with some imagination. There is one full name he borrowed. "I used Sean Stranahan as a pseudonym when I entered writing contests a long time ago."

McCafferty is busy writing a third book, part of a four-book contract.

He realized that two "main" characters have emerged in the books and readers might expect Sheriff Martha Ettinger to play a stronger role in the third novel.

"When I finished the first book, the agent told me I had two main characters and that it was a hard thing to pull off," McCafferty said. "The truth is, Martha is the most natural for me to write. Any scenes I put her in, I'm able to write much easier."

brettp@sltrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman