Paul Doiron’s novel “The Precipice” edges toward Stephen King territory by mixing chilling murders set in an unexpected, almost sacred, setting. This is Doiron’s sixth in his Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch series.

Two young women who had set out to hike the Appalachian Trail after graduation from a Southern Christian college go missing in the Hundred Mile Wilderness leading up to Mount Katahdin. A massive search involving law enforcement from numerous agencies and volunteers is launched. But when the women are found, all that remain are ravaged bones at the bottom of a landmark precipice.

Was it an accident, murder, or – as wild local speculation holds – rogue coyotes that had been stalking them?

Since the trail was officially created in October 1968, thousands have successfully hiked it, typically starting out from Springer Mountain in North Georgia in the spring and finishing atop Katahdin sometime toward the end of summer or in early fall.

Over the years, there have been at least half a dozen murders of thru-hikers, perhaps most notably the two slain by Randall Lee Smith in 1981. Deaths on the trail always generate a chill and second thoughts. For the two young women in “The Precipice,” however, there are no opportunities for second thoughts – or second chances.

The rabid suspicion that spreads like an epidemic in Northern Maine is that, rather than a serial killer, it was coyotes, or some crossbreed wolves. This leads to the slaughter of untold animals, including someone’s pet German shepherd by hunters eager to collect a bounty.

But little in “The Precipice” is as it seems. And there are enough two-legged socio- and psychopathic suspects to keep the pages turning.

There also is a subplot that Doiron has been patiently building toward in the two preceding Bowditch novels. The story opens with Bowditch and Stacey Stevens, a young biologist with the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife department – someone as impetuous and impulsive as he is – off on their first romantic getaway at a cabin near Popham Beach. Stacey is the daughter of Bowditch’s good friend and mentor, a retired warden who still flies his floatplane in service to the agency on occasion. A phone call, however, interrupts Mike and Stacey’s interlude before it even gets started. Mike is called back to help with the search for the missing girls, and Stacey soon follows, taking flight in her dad’s plane.

Things go from bad to worse for the two missing girls – as well as for Mike and Stacey, given male egos and chauvinistic taunts – and a secret backstory that still haunts Stacey. Her backstory fuels her zealous conviction as to the truth of what really happened to the two missing girls.

Bowditch is more seasoned by experience and previous reprimands in earlier plot lines, something that tempers his persona. I felt myself missing the old Bowditch, but Stacey Stevens takes up much of the slack in her dogged pursuit of the truth. Her passion will ultimately put both Bowditch’s and her life in jeopardy. And threaten to unravel their nascent relationship.

Doiron manages to mix dark elements of trail history with a seismic social issue that divides the nation. “The Precipice” is a fast and satisfying read, end to end.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

frankosmithstories.com