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Mystery in the Wild

How come this topic never occurred to us any earlier? After all, we are writing these blog posts for students interested in biology, the environment, plants and animals, forests and oceans. Moreover, when it comes to reading for fun, my favorite genre is definitely mysteries.

I still remember when I picked up my first book written by C. J. Box at Newark Airport a while ago, except the title. I found it ironic to read about fresh air of the great outdoors while stuck on an intercontinental flight, breathing in whatever was circulating in the cabin. Or reading about food: fresh fruits and other goodies, strapped in the seat while munching on tv-dinner food. But the long, descriptive passages portraying the beautiful  Wisconsin scenery definitely made the trip more enjoyable. Or was it Wyoming?

Cover artWyoming game warden Joe Pickett, soon became one of my favorite characters. With his down-to-earth approach, street smart and pragmatic way of thinking, his unconditional love of his family and nature alike, the protagonist in the series appeals to broad audiences. I loved him for the distrust of incompetent authority figures, a trait that someone like me can easily identify with. The unnameable book was a memorable first, followed by several others once I discovered that the these volumes are available on my favorite audiobook platform too. The latest one, Shadows Reel, in our RecRead Collection showcases the local library his wife is running, as the plot thickens around a photo album that belonged to an infamous Nazi official.

This gave me the idea of trying to find more books where the great outdoors served as the background of detective stories. I wondered if and how the brutality of violent crimes might be softened by the environment. I haven’t reached a conclusion yet. Violence is still violence, but the scenery can definitely add value to a mystery, if used wisely.

One thing is true, you can’t write about nature without loving it and knowing it inside out. Many authors who use nature as a backdrop for their stories are also experts in their own field, whether it’s forestry, marine biology, plant biology, animal science, and sometimes in more than one field. The tiniest discrepancy in any mystery will completely throw off the reader and might make the book no longer palatable. An authentic story needs the right language, which can’t be faked. Instead, it should be mastered with research and studies. No wonder libraries play such an important role in any author’s life, and, oftentimes, books too.

The educational factor in these stories is not negligible. Even if one is not terribly interested in falcons, the adorable  rogue falconeer, Nate Romanowski in the C. J. Box books will change our perspectives and how we look at, or better to say, up, to a big predator in the sky next time. Learning about humane hunting, if there’s such a thing at all, will probably not turn anyone away from their vegetarian diet, but there’s some comfort in realizing that conscious hunting exists and most hunters are not poachers and respect animals in the wilderness.

Cover artAnother auther I read a lot is Paul Doiron. His protagonist, Mike Bowditch is a game warden investigator in Maine, which includes coastal areas. In addition to wildlife in the mountains, these stories also take us to picturesque islands surrounded by marine life. The author’s love for the Maine outdoors is coupled with his background (he grew up in Maine), his interest and dedication (he’s a registered Maine Guide and can do and teach many of the outdoor activities he writes about), and he probably doesn’t need to go to the library to describe a moose. Whether one associates Maine with lobsters or lighthouses, whether one visited the state or not, his descriptions are inviting the reader to go – for all the violent content, which is the only praise one has to say about a suspense or mystery.

I really enjoyed watching the characters grow, better to say, mature, in this setting. Free of typical everyday problems, they have enough to face, many of them rooting in the environment: sea, air, and land equally challenge the characters and the author. However, they are all up to it, resulting in memorable reads and as collateral, a lot of knowledge about outdoorsy stuff the reader didn’t know existed in the first place. 

Walt Longmire’s name probably sounds familiar from the tv-series. Author Craig Johnson places his stories in a remote part of Wyoming, coming with its own challenges as far as modern day conveniences, or the lack of any, are concerned. Remote locations also mean underprivileged and underserved populations, an issue more and more mystery authors address too. Reservations and native American communities started to show up in mystery novels. Crime, a very sensitive topic in these communities, should be handled with utmost care and it needs an investigative, researcher-author. What works in a run-of-the-mill detective story depicting a scene or character may not fly here – for accuracy, details, vulnerabilty, and in general, the unknown.

Cover artSpeaking of traditional communities struggling with survival, faith, and the expectations of the world around them, the Cork O’Connor series by William Kent Krueger stand out with crime stories taking place on a fictional Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, close to beatiful, hidden natural resources around Lake Superior. While chasing modern-day villains and mythical beasts, the reader will learn not only about how to navigate around an island in a canoe or go fly fishing, but a whole new world of values, beliefs, and traditions Native Americans can teach us, in a beautiful language sprinkled with Ojibwe expressions. Last summer our guest author poet Natalie Díaz provided an insight on identity intersectionality and what authors can do to preserve language of these communities.

Finally, an author, who lists wilderness novels on her site, Robin Barefield actually lives the life that she’s writing about – in Alaska. “I use a setting I know and understand in my novels, and this setting happens to be the wilderness of Kodiak Island where I live,” she claims. Bear Creek Lodge is not only the location of the massacre that an Alaskan State Trooper and FBI need to investigate, but also a location familiar to the author, who runs a hunting, fishing, and wildlife-viewing lodge. With a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology and working as a wildlife-viewing guide for over 30 years, she can undoubtedly create an authentic backdrop to her stories.

Moreover, she flashes that glimpse of hope for aspiring authors from STEM disciplines to start their own career as a wildlife writer. Browse the Rutgers collection with this search or create your own. Where’s your next book taking you?