Species-Saving Sleuths

Poachers meet their match in Kirk Russell's eco-thrillers.

Five years ago, East Bay resident and construction-company CEO Kirk Russell began his novel-writing career with the first in a series of mysteries about bad people harming vulnerable animal species. Now dubbed “eco-thrillers,” these books were an idea whose timing was absolutely slam-bang perfect.

But for Russell, writing about a California Department of Fish & Game Special Operations Unit — and creating his protagonist, sensitive-but-tough Lieutenant John Marquez — wasn’t a mere gimmick. An avid hiker and backpacker, Russell has always been passionate about wildlife. One day while researching a short story, the UC Berkeley alum telephoned the Department of Fish & Game to do a little fact-checking — “and a dispatcher told me about this undercover stuff.” One thing led to another, and soon Russell was joining surveillance stakeouts and going on ride-alongs with the unit on whom he based his 2003 debut Shell Games. That book begins on a lonely stretch of coastline south of Fort Bragg scattered with empty abalone shells and the corpses of slain divers — one of whom was “a grade-A asshole” well-known to Marquez and his fellow officers. In Russell’s next novel, Night Games, Marquez investigates Sierra-foothills farms in which bears are confined veal-calf-style in small cages while their bile — a coveted delicacy in certain Chinese-gourmand circles — is siphoned out via slits in their bellies. A bear can live for twelve to twenty years under such conditions, says Russell, who will discuss his books and host a workshop on writing eco-thrillers at the Brentwood Community Center (760 1st St., Brentwood, across the courtyard from the event’s sponsor, the Brentwood Library) on November 1.

Deadgame, the third book in the series, involves Sacramento Delta sturgeon poachers and the illegal caviar trade: It begins as Marquez, undercover, has just paid $1,100 for a single fish. The Russian mafia is involved — although Russell, who consults frequently with Fish & Game, FBI, and other law-enforcement insiders, says the intelligence community no longer uses the term “Russian mafia.” These days, he says, “they call it Eurasian crime.” He felt drawn to write about California Department of Fish & Game undercover officers after learning that they’re making the environment a safer place “off the radar, doing these things almost no one knows about — quietly.” Yet in law-enforcement terms, they’re “low on the totem pole. They make half as much as Highway Patrol officers.” Yet they put themselves out on the line, hobnobbing with poachers, smugglers, and other eco-crooks in the hinterlands where calling for backup is often darn near impossible. All three of the Marquez books probe real-life vortices in which crime impacts the food and gourmet-restaurant industry. Russell is no stranger to the latter of those worlds; Russell’s wife Judy Rogers is a chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. 2 p.m. Contra-Costa.Lib.Ca.US

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