Devil in the Grass by Christopher Bowron

3 Mins read

This debut thriller is an ambitious mix of Florida politics, Satanic cults, Seminole tradition, alligators and even a bull shark. Canadian author Christopher Bowron is clearly familiar with the southwest Florida setting, which he describes expertly, bringing the story to vivid life. We recently interviewed Bowron, and you can read it here.

The Everglades setting is home to not just alligators, but other dangerous predators including the Florida panther and thousands of non-native Burmese pythons – formerly pets – that can reach 19 feet in length. Plus, Bowron would have it, humans of the sort who don’t mix well with civilisation. The nine-foot sawgrass that gives the Everglades its nickname – River of Grass – and provides Bowron’s inspiration for the book title, gives superb cover to his characters as they ply their small boats through its waters.

The impetus for the plot is also grounded in real life: the ongoing political battle between those who want to save the Everglades as a unique and irreplaceable natural resource and the agricultural interests making vast fortunes growing sugar cane and raising cattle along its edges. Pollution from those industries drains into the waters, destroying the natural ecosystem.

In Devil in the Grass, former pro football player and half-Seminole Jackson Walker works as an intern for a relatively farsighted Republican state senator, James Hunter, who supports clean water legislation. Walker, in his mid-20s, meets and falls for Sarah Courtney, a clerk working for the party. She seeks him out, seduces him, and gradually exposes him to her religion – the Satanic cult called The Brotherhood of Set.

After a while, Walker does what he believes is an innocent errand for the cult leader, and at the book’s opening we find him hiding out in Big Cypress Swamp, accused of slaying a man and woman in some sort of Satanic ritual. In that moment, he naturally has a great many regrets. Becoming involved with Sarah, for one. Although he believes he became a target because of his work with the Senator, he also thinks that letting himself get soft and apathetic may have contributed. He also regrets the mistakes he made that led to the demise of his football career and reflects on the players he admired: “It was the fearlessness with which they marched onto the field that had mattered to him.” It seems Walker will be called upon to demonstrate that same fearlessness before the book’s last page.

If the cult leaders weren’t creepy enough, they have for generations used a particular Everglades family – the McFaddens – as fixers. In this generation there are three McFadden brothers with legitimate businesses. Eric runs charter fishing tours, Isaac is an accountant managing the family’s financial interests, and Jimmy is the intellectually challenged, stone-cold psychopath.

They are prone to killing and torture, and they let the vastness of the Everglades swallow the evidence. If you are burned out on serial killers with chain saws, Bowron’s alligators make for heart-pounding excitement.

This disreputable family is offset by Jackson’s Seminole family. They are Native Americans living on the Big Cypress reserve, which adjoins the Everglades and is territory they know intimately. The Seminoles trust Walker’s innocence in the couple’s murder and support his desire to hide out until evidence can be collected. To aid in his hoped-for exoneration, the family hires a lawyer and his female investigator.

Over the years, they have had many encounters with the Satanists and their leader, the charismatic 104-year-old Henrietta LePley, and recognise their power and ruthlessness. Adding to the toxic mix of motives, the Seminoles have been helping to negotiate Sen. Hunter’s clean water bill. As Walker’s grandfather tells him, “There are no coincidences.”

As the story gets rolling, not only the police, but also the Satanists and their instruments, the McFaddens, are after Walker. And don’t forget the gators.

The book clearly ends with the promise of a sequel, which I hope can make the bad guys as believable as the environment and that Bowron gets help in crafting more believable dialogue. I’m not sure when this novel takes place, but if Buck Henderson’s old Cadillac was manufactured after 2002, it has a trunk release lever. And I wish he hadn’t laid Jimmy’s psychotic behavior at the door of severe autism. Scientific study has failed to link the two.

Koehler Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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