Bearskin, a first novel, is a mix of mystery and one man's emersion in the solace of nature. When Rice Moore becomes caretaker of the Turk Mountain Preserve in Virginia, he is fleeing Arizona and a determined drug cartel, never knowing how soon his past will catch up and grateful for his duties tracking wildlife and refurbishing buildings. The solitary life is an antidote for the violence he has escaped.
Daily routines and the routes he will follow in gathering data have a calming effect on Moore, the solitary days a respite, the chores ahead a welcomes distraction from the occasional nightmares. Rice is subject to fugues, even in the most hazardous circumstances, waking to discover he has once more lost track of time. Moore eventually meets the locals, many hostile, adjusting to the natural enmity of hunters, black market purveyors of bear parts for overseas markets, dope dealers and random criminal enterprises on the vast landscape. There's little love for a man who protects wildlife from those who would profit from it.
When a stranger appears, a man he had not seen until his approach, asking Rice to follow him, the trek leads to the carcass of a dead bear, stripped of his paws and gall bladder, left for other wildlife to forage. It becomes Moore's mission to find the bear killers and bring them to justice--aware that contacting the authorities will necessitate more visibility, threatening his carefully planned anonymity.
The decision to apprehend the bear killers made, the action accelerates, violence seeping slowly into Rice's solitary world. It's a given that a man chased by a cartel is eventually going to come face to face with the past. As the inevitable contretemps grows close, so does the tension. Other characters are spare and concise, mankind mercilessly exposed, a parable for the fragile balance between nature and the greedy maw of profit. But what makes this novel particularly interesting is the melding of man and nature. Rice draws on instinct and an intimate connection with the land, acutely attuned to the environment, the subtle shifts of wind, the sights and sounds of the natural world:
The forest was eerily animate, a gigantic green beast dreaming, not quite threatening, but peaceful, watchful. Beyond the storyline, McLaughlin brings this vast territory alive, not only with contemporary menace but the heart of a man's relationship with the world around him.