Nearly a year after the events of Two Graves, Corrie Swanson discovers a tantalizing subject for her college thesis. In the ski resort of Roaring Fork, Colorado, a historic cemetery is being relocated for land development. Among the remains are the skeletons of eleven miners, killed by a bear almost 150 years ago. Corrie goes to the resort to investigate, and finds that there's more to the miners' story than meets the eye. However, her attempt to investigate further lands her jail.
Enter Agent Pendergast, returning from his vacation. He arrives to spring Corrie out of jail...right when an arsonist burns down a mansion with the family still inside.
Putting himself on the case, Pendergast finds that the mysteries of the arsonist, the miners, and the resort itself may be illuminated by a curious clue: A lost story of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes...
This novel provides examples of:
- Asshole Victim: Betty Brown Kermode turns out be the arsonist's final victim. In spite of her earlier misgivings, Corrie feels that what happened was still too horrific a fate. Pendergast says nothing, but gives a look that suggests he feels otherwise.
- Based on a Great Big Lie/Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The prologue, which is about a meeting between Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, is subtitled "A True Story". The meeting itself actually happened, and it's the reason we have Doyle's The Sign of the Four and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The part where Wilde tells a horror story to Doyle - a horror story that sends Doyle to the restroom - is a fabrication by the authors.
- In-universe, "The Adventure of Aspern Hall" is based on what really killed the miners in Roaring Fork.
- Big-Bad Ensemble: One the one hand we have the arsonist Ted Roman. On the other hand, we have Betty Brown Kermode and the Stafford family, who are trying to keep the secrets of the ski resort. They don't like each other very much.
- Big Damn Heroes: Captain Stacy Bowdree saves Corrie from the sniper at the very end.
- Breather Episode: The story comes after The Helen Trilogy, where Pendergast was pushed to his emotional limits. In contast, the events of this novel are much less personal to Pendergast at least until Corrie is apparently killed, but that turns out to be a Disney Death anyway.
- Buried Alive: Ted Roman dies in an avalanche.
- Chase Scene: Much of the climax is one between Corrie and an assassin.
- Christmas Episode: The end of the novel takes place a little before Christmas, with the climax taking place on Christmas Eve.
- Continuity Nod: A chapter shows that Pendergast is still keeping an eye out for the escaped villain of Two Graves.
- Death by Irony: Ted Roman, the arsonist, is Buried Alive in an avalanche. He sets things ablaze, but meets his end in ice.
- Disney Death: Corrie is apparently burnt alive by Ted Roman, and her remains are apparently found by Pendergast. She then turns up alive; the remains Pendergast found were actually those of Betty Brown Kermode.
- Fingore: One of Corrie's fingers is shot off by Kermode's hitman.
- Historical Domain Character: Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde appear in the Prologue and Pendergast's Pensieve Flashback. As noted above, their meeting at the Langham Hotel is something that actually happened.
- Hope Spot: Corrie is chased through the town mines by Kermode's assassin, but things start looking up when she runs into Ted. Then he reveals himself as the arsonist.
- Idiot Ball: Corrie picks it up at the climax when she realizes she's being followed but doesn't bother trying to escape to a safe place. It's lampshaded, with Corrie berating herself for her stupidity, and she drops the ball in time for the Chase Scene.
- I'm a Humanitarian: The bear victims were actually attacked by a small group of unemployed, mercury poisoned miners who had to get something to eat and were crazy enough to eat anything. This is also the case in "The Adventure of Aspern Hall", where the murderer, also mercury posioned, develops a taste for human flesh.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Betty Brown Kermode is Killed Offscreen by Ted Roman, a victim of the mercury poisoned land she kept secret. Pendergast figures that Roman wasn't aware of the mercury poisoning and says it was simply poetic justice.
- The Mad Hatter: There really isn't an example of the trope, but an actual mad hatter appears in "The Adventure of Aspern Hall". In fact the dead miners, the arsonist's insanity, and the secret that Betty Brown Kermode is willing to kill for all stem from the very thing that makes hatters mad: Mercury.
- Mask of Sanity: Ted Roman. Introduced as a Love Interest for Corrie Swanson. Described as totally smitten with Corrie by Stacy Bowdree. Turns out to be the Mood-Swinger Pyro Maniac arsonist.
- In "The Adventure of Aspern Hall", we have Sir Percival, who gives no indication of the fact that he eats people at night.
- Missing Episode: In-universe, the plot revolves around a "lost" Sherlock Holmes story entitled "The Adventure of Aspern Hall".
- Mood-Swinger: The arsonist, when revealed, switches between a veneer of calmness and a frothing mania. It's portrayed as something horrifying. In fact, it's implied that one of the arsonist's victims found his mood swings scarier than the fire he started; the victim tried to escape into the fire.
- Monster Clown: The arsonist wears a clown mask.
- Pastiche/Show Within a Show: A chapter is devoted to "The Adventure of Aspern Hall", a Sherlock Holmes story. In-universe, it's a lost story by Arthur Conan Doyle. In reality, it's these two tropes. Also, it's relevant to the plot.
- Not So Stoic: After discovering that Corrie had not in fact been burned alive, Pendergast, who has very rarely showed much emotion in the past and has himself mentioned being uncomfortable with physical affection, hugs Corrie and cries.
- Pyro Maniac: The arsonist.
- Russian Roulette: Pendergast starts an impromptu game of this with a Crazy Survivalist. The survivalist himself finds it crazy, but plays along. It was really a way for Pendergast to have the survivalist sell information and Pendergast hints that it may have been a False Roulette.
- Seen It All: Pendergast explains that Doyle's reaction to Wilde's story - a reaction that sends Doyle to the toilet - is important because it's an subversion of this trope. Doyle served as a ship's doctor in the late 1800s, meaning that he would already have seen a lot of horrible things. Anything that would drive him to vomit would have to be truly ghastly.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Captain Stacy Bowdree, the descendant of one of the bear victims. She was discarged due to PTSD.
- Ski Resort With A Dark Secret: The secret of Roaring Fork is that it was once the site of a silver smelting plant...meaning that the ground is contaminated with mercury.
- This Bear Was Framed: The miners were thought to be killed by a bear when one was seen munching on a victim's remains. The real killers were a group of insane cannibals - but they were too crazy to frame the bear; it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the other hand, the murderer of "The Adventure Of Aspern Hall" delibrately made his killings look like a wolf attack. He didn't actually have a wolf to frame though, since wolves were extinct in Britain.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Ted Roman, the arsonist, thinks he's this. Really, he's just completely out of his mind.