James A. McLaughlin’s deeply evocative writing in Bearskin (2018) earned him an Edgar Award for best first novel, and now he turns his attention from Appalachia to Colorado for an even more ambitious second novel. The title of Panther Gap suggests something savage and spiritual within its pages, and once you begin, you’ll discover a thriller rich with character detail, metaphor and even a bit of magic.
Flashbacks scattered throughout the novel reveal the difficult, sometimes mystical childhood of siblings Bowman and Summer. They grew up on a ranch known as Panther Gap, where their father kept them off the grid and taught them to work the family land, sometimes at a great personal price. In the present, Bowman has become a wanderer obsessed with the natural wonders of the world, while Summer has stayed behind to try and keep Panther Gap afloat with the help of her uncles.
Everything changes when Summer gets a call about a mysterious inheritance in a secret overseas bank account, something tied to their grandfather’s misadventures in organized crime. The money could save Panther Gap, but other forces are vying for the windfall—forces that could jeopardize Bowman and Summer’s reunion and destroy their complicated family legacy.
What’s immediately striking about Panther Gap is how firmly McLaughlin grasps his characters, not in the sense that he’s a master puppeteer who won’t let them stray, but in that he seems to know every inch of their souls. Even when the narrative blasts off into the thriller stratosphere, he never loses his touch. It’s a remarkably assured novel, with every page enriched by McLaughlin’s confidence in these characters.
Panther Gap comes alive in McLaughlin’s hands, growing and shifting until, by the end, you feel like you could step right into it. It certainly evokes the crime novels of Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos but, most importantly, reaffirms McLaughlin’s own bright, confident voice.