Arson...or murder?

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First aired on The Next Chapter (18/03/13)

Dave Hugelschaffer's Porter Cassel series features a sleuth who's a forest fire investigator, so the novels are part murder mystery, part fire procedural.

Hugelschaffer's latest book, the third in the series, is called Whiskey Creek. Investigator Porter Cassel is sent to Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta to investigate a string of arsons that seem to be targeting the local Cree band. Then a trapper dies in a cabin fire, and things get complicated.

Hugelschaffer knows the territory. He now lives in Edson, Alberta, but spent almost 20 years working in the province's forests, including a three-year stint as a forest ranger in Fort Chipewyan. Whiskey Creek 140x210.jpg

He described it as "certainly a very unique community," and added that "there is no full-time road. For about three or three and a half months of the year there's an ice road to get in and out. Other than that you're flying or taking a boat." The population is predominantly First Nations, and "it's also downstream of the oilsands."

When asked about the effects of big industry on small, isolated communities like Fort Chipewyan, Hugelschaffer said he thinks that "big industry, be it oil or otherwise, always has a pronounced effect on small communities. That effect can be positive or negative. I think that in many ways, it's both."

When Hugelschaffer first started writing, he tried his hand at other genres. But he found it difficult to get published, and decided instead to concentrate on what he knew -- and he feels that his books about fire investigations make for a good mystery.

"Fires themselves are often associated with other crimes," he explained. "And it's very simple sense: someone is murdered, and the house is burnt down to destroy the evidence. So, a forest fire would be no different. There could be all sorts of associated crimes."

Hugelschaffer pointed out that fire destroys most evidence, fingerprints included, which makes investigating it difficult. "A wildfire investigation, particularly, is considered the most difficult crime statistically to solve in the world, above all else," he said.

Hugelschaffer's sleuth, Porter Cassel, has been referred to as "the Dirty Harry of fire investigators," he said. "He tends to get personally involved and he is not above bending the rules to get the job done. He won't let process or bureaucracy stand in the way of justice." Cassel is surrounded, however, by others who go by the book -- particularly the RCMP -- which creates conflict.

Porter Cassel might soon be coming to the small screen. Hugelschaffer has signed with two companies who are jointly developing a Porter Cassel television series.

"After toiling in obscurity for 20 years, I might now be considered an overnight success," he joked.

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