Book Review: The Rotting Whale

While a good many mystery novels have environmental themes, it’s rare to find a book specifically labeled “eco-mystery”—but Jann Eyrich’s new series is just that. 

The Rotting Whale introduces Hugo Sandoval, a San Francisco building inspector specializing (despite his aquaphobia) in port projects. Though his job in the city has an environmental angle (he hopes to prevent the eviction of a local business and the commercial development of Pier 50—slightly complicated by the fact that his corporate-attorney-ex-wife’s client is the developer), the eco-heart of this story begins when Hugo gets a series of alarming messages from his daughter, Ava, a cetologist working at a remote marine research center on the northern California coast. Along with his best friend, T. Ray, Hugo heads up the coast to where a 90-foot, 50-ton dead whale has come ashore, along with her newborn calf. 

Adding to the environmental theme, the area is one that has thrived by taking from nature: fishing, logging, cannabis grows that pollute and clog the local waterways—not to mention the Dillon Ranch, a dairy, sheep, and beef cattle ranch.

Ava is situated at the Dillon Ranch above the shore and is in a relationship with its heir, local artist Nate Dillon, whose complex past is revealed once Hugo arrives and finds himself inspecting Nate’s red-tagged cottage at the ranch. Meanwhile, Ava has been put in charge of the whale, who had been struck by a NOAA vessel, which ironically had been in the area to map the sea floor for designated wildlife habitats. 

Hugo soon realizes that things aren’t quite what they seem: The 750-pound newborn calf, umbilical cord still attached, is on the other side of the cove’s rocks from the mother, and it becomes clear someone had tried to move the mother whale back out to sea. And the cottage is hiding secrets of its own, Hugo finds during his inspection, and he begins to learn more about the Dillon family and their secrets.  

From San Francisco to Fort Bragg, the author’s love of both places comes through the characters. As an old-school “newspaperman” reflects in a story he tells Hugo, “It was one of those nights where the fog paints you right into the pavement. You know those nights; I know you do. Steel streetcar wheels squealing against the tracks up Market Street, raspy voices of taxi horns and faint sirens; streetlights on the bridge strung like of dull pearls bleeding through the mist—and the smell. If I told you I loved the smell, I think you would understand. I’ll never come clean of it … A mixture of old mudflats and dreams.” Similarly, “North Coast fog has no rival when it comes to taking the color out of the landscape. Painters soon find they need a palette more expansive than the colors themselves, a palette that comes with a dipping well of sounds borne by a gentle caress from the sea.” 

Eco-conscious readers may find The Rotting Whale less environmental than Cher Fischer’s eco-mystery Falling Into Green, whose protagonist truly walks the environmental walk (she doesn’t eat meat, drives an electric car, and is an ecopsychologist)—but it’s always great to see animals and the environment at the forefront of a story, especially in a well-read genre. Stay tuned for Eyrich’s next Hugo Sandoval book, The Blind Key.  

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