Date of Award

May 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

George Clark

Committee Members

Liam Callanan, Tasha Oren, Theodore Martin, Anthony Greene


The Secret Hills is a literary thriller. Kelly Murdoch is crestfallen when her sister Mara fails to attend her documentary premiere. Kelly visits Mara's apartment and finds evidence that no one has been there for weeks. A random shooting occurs across town at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Seven people die.

The zoo shooter, Ibrahim Rohani, had participated in one of Mara's PTSD studies. Kelly tracks down Rohani's friend Nick Miner, a fellow veteran who also participated in Mara's study. With Nick, Kelly drives to Colorado to confront Lorenzo Hills, an independently wealthy rancher who funded Mara's PTSD research. Despite (or perhaps because of) her suspicion that Mara had been romantically involved with Nick, Kelly sleeps with him. While on the road, Nick and Kelly evade an ambiguous agent they call The Patriot. Kelly and Nick search for Mara and Hills in Colorado. The Patriot reappears and abducts Kelly. Nick rescues Kelly and they flee into the mountains. While in pursuit, The Patriot's wheels are shot out and his truck goes over a cliff. Mara Murdoch appears.

Mara takes Nick and Kelly to an abandoned mining settlement called High Fork. The inhabitants--including the secretive Hills--are misfits, but unusually bright, inventive, and observant. With Nick's help, Kelly learns that Mara's work with a genetically-modified parasite has activated the "nirvana centers" in the brains of the High Fork residents--but the parasite sometimes activates other parts of the brain, areas associated with rage, aggression, and violence. The first symptom is insomnia, and Nick hasn't slept for the past three nights...

It's up to Kelly to save Nick, prevent Mara from distributing her genetically-modified parasite to every grocery store and municipal water supply in America, and heal the family that shattered when Kelly and Mara's father committed suicide more than twenty years ago.