Abalone has a most delicate taste of the sea. The meat of the mollusk is so prized, particularly in some Asian countries where it is also considered an aphrodisiac, that a shadow industry has emerged.
High-stakes poaching threatens some species' survival in South Africa, Australia and Northern California, where poachers have swarmed since Southern and Central California abalone stocks declined.
How high are the stakes? In 1997, the owner of an illegal seafood processing business paid commercial sea urchin boats in Bodega Bay $45,000 per load for abalone; also that year, the California Department of Fish and Game busted an abalone-for-heroin ring working out of a Point Arena bed-and-breakfast.
With his first novel, Kirk Russell drops readers directly into the action on the craggy North Coast, carving a new niche in crime writing with an environmental edge.
Leading the action is Lt. John Marquez, head of a special operations unit of the Department of Fish and Game and a former DEA agent with more than his share of regrets.
Once hooked by Shell Games... readers may find themselves wanting to buy this guy Marquez a drink just to keep him talking.
Over a couple of glasses of Rioja at Zuni Cafe one night last week, Russell, 48, talked about his own powerful connection to California. (You wouldn't know it from his protagonist's culinary habitscoffee, tacos, beer, coffeebut Russell is married to Judy Rodgers, chef-owner of Zuni, who won two James Beard awards this year for outstanding restaurant and best cookbook.)
"Having grown up here and hiked over and climbed over most of it, I wanted a character who is driven by a love of the land," said Russell, who was raised in Orinda and now lives in Berkeley.
"It's what Marquez hangs onto, absolutely. I had in mind an environmentalist character who is enfranchised, someone who is empowered to make a difference, who couldn't be dismissed as just another tree-hugger."
Russell came out of UC Berkeley thinking maybe he'd go to law school. Instead, he started writingstabs at a novel, articles on hang-glidingand doing construction. Eventually, he had a construction company with two partners and 150 employees.
"Learning carpentry, that was great. It changes you to work with your hands for years," said Russell. "But contracting, that's a tough game." He has kept his hand in, building select projects, since he started writing in earnest six years ago.
"It's been said that crime is the genre that records the truest social history," he said. And the Web site for the Department of Fish and Game bears it out, at least for Russell's book.
A warning posted there reads: "Abalone are easily overfished. They have slow growth, infrequent reproductive success . . . and need high densities for successful reproduction. Great care will be needed to prevent the northern California red abalone fishery from joining all the abalone fisheries which have collapsed worldwide."
Market poaching is a global problem, and it's a great subject.
"In law enforcement as in crime fiction, you're always fighting those that would do wrong to the greater good," said Russell. "Marquez is fighting for something in addition to justice, living a life in our society that's connected to the land."
"It's important to do a job like he does. Because a bunch of things are vanishingso what? No one cares. And yet it absolutely matters to him."
Pushing the idea of nature's exquisite fragility even further, Russell painted a picture as vivid as those in the book. "If you're out on a beach at nightsay Stinsonwhat is it really worth? It has no dollar value. Let's say it's midnight, there's no moon, there are startlingly white crests on the waves, you see the long curve of the beach ahead of you because of the surf. It's September, so there's no real wind. What is it worth? What is its value? You'll remember 10 years later walking along that beach with someone you love."
From an experience like that, he said, "you get a sense of totality, a sense of the whole. You get the sense of being a creature alive that you don't get by going to the movies."
Heidi Benson, San Francisco Chronicle, 2003