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Failure analyst Owen Allison recently left his lucrative consulting practice in California to help his mother back home in West Virginia in her fight against cancer. His ex-wife and current lover, Judith, is also back on the West Coast, and now that his mother has mostly recovered, he's itching to get back to his life, to stimulate both his portfolio and his love life. But before he has a chance to leave his small hometown of Barkley, West Virginia, a local dam breaks, sending a black ribbon of coal sludge cascading miles and miles through the hollows across the region. Four people lose their lives in the accident, and the ambulance chasers gnash their teeth and formulate strategies for the inevitable lawsuits against big coal. It turns out that Owen knows the owner of the coal mine, a good ol' boy from his high school class whose success has surprised everyone, even himself. What's more, the classmate knows that finding out why things fail is Owen's speciality, and he hires him on the spot to figure out just what went wrong. Judith and his California practice will have to wait, but Owen is only half-worried about letting those things slide. He's thrilled to be back in the thick of things.