A murder-mystery perfect for skiers and history buffs

Review: “Back Dirt: A Murder on Skis Mystery” by Phil Bayly

Skiers, mystery lovers and history buffs will enjoy Phil Bayly’s newest novel, “Back Dirt: A Murder on Skis Mystery.”

In the third book of the Murder on Skis Mystery series, the author weaves together a tale of multiple murders, ethics violations, fraud, a love of skiing and the discovery of Revolutionary War artifacts. Bayly, a former reporter and anchor for WNYT-TV in Albany, graduated from Colorado State University and is a self-proclaimed ski racer and “ski bum.” These experiences, plus “a crash course in archaeology,” are put to good use in Back Dirt. Bayly currently lives in Saratoga County.

The story takes place mostly in snowy Lake Placid and at archaeological digs on the potential site of a fictional ski resort on the real Bonnieview Road. A Denver television station sends journalist JC Snow to Lake Placid to cover the impending arrest of Colin Cornheiser, a county executive accused of murdering his best friend in Colorado 45 years ago. Cornheiser has consistently denied any involvement but the Colorado Bureau of Investigation thinks he is guilty. The biggest problem for JC is that Cornheiser is a nice guy who is well-respected by his constituents, and JC doubts his guilt after their first meeting.

Except for the murderers and fraudsters, most of the characters are likeable people who try to do the right thing. JC is an avid skier who grew up not too far from Placid, so he’s excited to get in some good skiing while he’s there. Bip, the photographer and a skilled snowboarder, accompanies him. Robin, the producer, turns out to be an efficient, thorough researcher. Together, they make a good team as they run down leads and make connections in the search for answers in the death of Cornheiser’s friend along with other murders that occur in Lake Placid. Archaeologists Cindy Pfister and Harold DeWitt are central to the plot as they conduct separate digs that determine whether the sites are free of historical artifacts and can be built upon. Without giving too much of the plot away, readers will find that there are ethics violations and criminal activities that contribute to the murders in Lake Placid. Here, we learn the meaning of the term “back dirt” — for snowboarders when they fall on their backs, it means they get dirt all over their backs; in archaeology, once the dirt has been examined and deemed “clean” without artifacts, it can be thrown back into the hole.

Each of the other important characters has a backstory that could be expanded in subsequent novels. One of the most endearing characters, Patrick, is an elderly Irish gentleman who Robin befriends and of whom she becomes very fond. He has some history with running guns for the IRA as a young boy, ending up in Lake Placid after fleeing Ireland to avoid being killed. Another sympathetic character is Sheriff Smudge, whose wife died in a boating accident, and for whom he still grieves. He sounds like a stereotypical tough guy at first, but he turns out to be another good one who cares about the people in his town. A third interesting character is Stormy. He is an outcast who lives alone outside of town. He regularly chooses one from his stockpile of guns and points it at anyone, including the sheriff, who steps onto his property but he plays an important role in solving the mysteries. In the end, the good guys win.

According to murderonskis.com, Bayly’s fourth mystery will come out in November 2022. Check out the Murder on Skis series if you enjoy mysteries, skiing and stories set in the Adirondacks.


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