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Murder and mystery in the mountains

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily
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Ever wonder what it feels like to be the main character in a novel?

Renee Rumrill, guide for A.J. Brinks Outfitters in Gypsum, can answer that question with confidence.

“I’ve been thrilled about it; It’s been fun,” said Rumrill, who was the inspiration for Mark Stevens female lead, Allison Coil, in his first published novel, “Antler Dust.”



“Of course it’s not biographical in any way, but I’ve enjoyed the thought that, you know, something I did I think represents women in a very atypical field,” Rumrill said.

The plot of “Antler Dust” revolves around hunting guide Allison Coil who tries to solve an apparent double homicide that takes place in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness.



Stevens portrays Coil as a smart, tough former city-girl who has found solace in the vast and sparsely populated Colorado landscape. When she thinks she has witnessed a possible murder and tries to get involved in the investigation, she gets caught between rival hunting factions, animal activists, and her own personal demons. Through it all, the reader is introduced to a bevy of characters, but none as stand-out as Coil ” a strong female lead in an industry dominated by testosterone.

Stevens first met Rumrill when she took him and his wife horseback riding while they were staying at a guest ranch in the Flat Tops Wilderness ” a 235,035 acre area of land north of I-70, which stretches from Dotsero to Rifle. Stevens describes her as “this really amazing young woman who just lived and breathed the outdoors and just completely capable.” When Rumrill told him that she was a hunting guide, Stevens said that he almost fell off his horse with amazement. He knew right then that he had to write something using Rumrill as inspiration, and the Flat Tops Wilderness as the setting, he said.

Stevens, a former journalist, grew up outside of Boston but has been living in Denver for the past 28 years. He spent almost five years writing and rewriting “Antler Dust,” which was published last March.



The book has received its share of positive reviews, which in turn has opened the door to negotiations with publishers about some of Stevens’ other novels and short stories. In many ways, “Antler Dust” has put Stevens and the Colorado wilderness on the map for mainstream mystery readers. Local readers will immediately visualize many of the descriptions and locales in the book ” from Glenwood Canyon to a City Market in Glenwood Springs ” therefore making it easier to connect with the story.

The novel also gets points for shining a spotlight on the hunting subculture and revealing a lifestyle that is often viewed by outsiders as violent and unnecessary.

But what exactly is antler dust? The unusual combination of words which form the book’s title is only hinted at in the story, and never fully explained.

“Any kind of antler dust is considered an aphrodisiac,” Stevens said.

In the book, a secret and illegal antler dust factory is discovered; the antler dust is being sold to Asian markets. Stevens storytelling style keeps the reader intrigued to the end. Steven’s goal is to immerse the reader in his written world without holding his or her hand through it all.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Coil is the boys club, the core cluster of male characters that make up the rest of the cast. George Grumley is the owner of one of the most successful hunting operations in Colorado. He will also kill, lie, cheat and steal to keep it that way. Coil and Grumley are cast against each other in a struggle to keep power and find the truth; together they are the yin and yang of the entire story.

There’s also Coil’s boyfriend, Slater, who works for the Forest Service; Dean Applegate, a hunter turned animal rights activist; and Sheriff Sandstrom, the laid-back law man who tries to piece together the recent crimes in his neck of the woods. The men certainly outnumber the women in the story, but that doesn’t mean that any of them are given a moral high ground. In fact, one of Steven’s goals throughout the book was to show both sides of the continuing struggle between hunters and animal rights activists; he paints neither as superior or sanctified.

“(The book) really just sort of played it down the middle and gave both sides a good shot at stating their cases,” Stevens said.

The research involved in writing “Antler Dust” was extensive, especially since Stevens is not a hunter himself.

“I’ve never had a hunting license. I’ve never, you know, done that,” Stevens said, though he has gone hunting with his brother-in-law and helped to skin and gut the kill. Stevens relied heavily on hunting magazines and books, online research and talking to knowledgeable sources to get the technical nuances right, he said.

“I feel good because I know some really good hunters who’ve read the book and they’ve said that all this stuff resonates,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who works in communications for the Colorado State Department of Education, has been writing fiction since 1983 and has only just now been published.

He said that getting “Antler Dust” published has been a “dream come true.”

“I don’t know why I write fiction, I just really feel the need to be writing fiction as much as I can on the side. If it’s a page a week or sometimes a paragraph a day that’s all ” I live for that,” said Stevens, who is now working on an “Antler Dust” sequel.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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