Incident At Big Sky · New Epstein Pod · The Clearing

Plus: Part three of our holiday reading list

It’s the final installment in our look back at Edgar Award Nominees of years past. Another title available “free” for Amazon Prime customers, Incident at Big Sky: The Inside Story of the Search for Two Savage Killers in Montana by Johnny France and Malcolm McConnell (nominated for Best Fact Crime in 1987) details the months-long manhunt for a father-and-son criminal pair in the rugged mountains of Montana.

In the summer of 1984, Kari Swenson, a recent college graduate and biathlete, sets out for her daily run in the wilderness outside the Big Sky Resort. She was spending her summer waiting tables and training to qualify for the next Winter Olympics. On her run she’s accosted by Don and Dan Nichols, a father-son duo who lived as hermits in the wild. The two tell her they “want a female to be with us on the mountain” and proceed to restrain her and take her back to their camp. Kari is forced to spend a worrisome and hellish night at the camp, but friends quickly notice she never returned from her run, and a search party is launched. 

The Nicholses aren’t planning to give Kari up easily. They warn her that they’ll kill anyone who comes looking for her. When a member of the search party approaches the camp, Kari shouts a warning but the Nicholses kill him, critically injure Kari, and make a run for it. Amazingly, the super-resourceful Kari is able to keep herself alive until she’s found and helicoptered out.

What follows is the heart of the book: the lengthy manhunt for the Nicholses in the Montana backcountry. Our narrator (and co-author) is Sheriff Johnny France, a former rodeo star and cowboy. France is straight out of central casting, and the multiple descriptions of him as unpretentiousness lawman with a Stetson and a badge start to wear a little thin. Occasionally, the reader gets the perspective of Dan Nichols, but it almost feels like an afterthought.  

The tactical challenge of outsmarting these two criminals who knew the high country better than law enforcement is really interesting to read about. The manhunt takes some wild turns over the months with every layperson, psychic, and professional tracker west of the Mississippi offering their guidance while law enforcement face a questioning press and the disappointment of the victims’ families. Ultimately, the seasons change and weather seals the Nicholses’ fate. Snowfall and flaring tension between father and son force them down from the range and they are quickly spotted by the rancher on whose land they’ve squatted. Sheriff France finally gets his men.

I enjoy a good manhunt story (Wild Escape by Chelsia Rose Marcius, about the Dannemora manhunt, is great, and who doesn’t love The Fugitive), but I wish Incident at Big Sky had further explored the rub between what France and McConnell call “Resort Montana” (wealthy adventurers dropping in for a taste of the Western life) and the unfettered wilderness that the Nicholses embrace. Don Nichols had a real aversion to these drop-in hunters, hikers, and fishermen, and resented the way they used the mountains and the animals therein as recreation. His commitment to living off the land was pretty extreme, and thinking of what might have befallen Kari had she been forced to become their “mountain woman” is chilling. – Susan Howard

The Clearing is set for a small-screen adaptation. The Gimlet podcast about April Balascio’s investigation into the alleged serial homicides committed by her father, Edward Wayne Edwards (and you thought your family Christmas was rough, ba-dump-ching) has entered into an adaptation deal with Chernin Entertainment, the folks behind properties like — uh, ohTruth Be Told, Deadline reports. It’s early days yet, so information on the overall plan is scarce, but The Clearing listeners are welcome to offer their casting notes in the comments. — EB

If all you wanted for Christmas was another Jeffrey Epstein-focused podcast, Santa has delivered. Truth and Lies: Jeffrey Epstein is an eight-part podcast from ABC News that’ll launch on January 9. That same day, at 9 PM ET, ABC will also air a two-hour special with the same name, focusing on Epstein’s life and background. The trailer for the podcast dropped today — you can listen to it, and subscribe to the series, here. — EB

Netflix has dropped a trailer for Killer Inside: The Mind Of Aaron Hernandez. The three-part docuseries on the NFL player turned convicted murderer is set for release on January 15, and will include “exclusive courtroom footage” and “Hernandez's phone calls from prison,” press materials for the show say. You can set yourself a reminder for the series premiere here. — ELB

Santa couldn’t find the chimney
December 22, 2019

We’re taking tomorrow and Wednesday off, but before we go, here are a couple more items to read while you chill in the airport or avoid your family:

Thursday on Best Evidence: Guess you’ll just have to see!

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