Sit Beside a Mountain Stream, See Her Waters Rise*

We’ve all been staying mostly indoors for several months now, and plenty of people are getting tired of that cooped-up feeling. Right now, a trip outdoors, even to take a quick walk, can seem awfully appealing. We may not be able to spend a lot of time outside, but that’s where good books come in.

There are plenty of crime fiction novels and series that feature ‘outdoorsy’ protagonists. There are characters such as Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte, or Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, who are police officers, and thoroughly familiar with nature and what it can show and do. They use that knowledge as they investigate. Other characters have other law enforcement roles with the same authority as police officers, but they have mostly ‘outdoor’ jobs (game wardens, for instance). And those characters can be very interesting. So can characters who may not have law enforcement authority, but do have a deep knowledge of how nature works.

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, for instance, we are introduced to Major John Despard, an explorer and hunter. He is one of eight people invited to dinner at the home of Mr. Shaitana. Four of the guests (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The other four are people who may have gotten away with murder. When Shaitana is killed later in the evening, Major Despard becomes one of the suspects. The four sleuths work to find out who the killer is. As the story goes on, we learn about the suspects’ backgrounds, and the murders they are said to have committed. Despard was serving as guide for an expedition to the Amazon. One day, Professor Luxmore, who was in the party, was shot, and somehow, Shaitana found out about the incident. At the dinner, he suggests that Despard shot Luxmore. As the story goes on, we learn what really happened on that expedition. Despard knows the land well, and is good at survival skills, so he was the right choice to lead the ill-fated expedition. He makes an interesting contrast to some of the other characters in the novel.

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. He loves the land, and he loves his wife, Laurie, and his children (and grandchild). His job is to protect the land and the animals that live there, and that can be a very dangerous job. Fans of the series will know that he’s gone up against developers, greedy ranchers, cowboys, and smugglers, among other people. And not everyone respects his authority as a law enforcement officer. But he does his job well, and does his best to look after his family.

Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch is also a game warden, based in Maine. He has a different sort of perspective on the job, since his father was a poacher. In fact, that’s part of how he got to know the land as well as he does. It’s also part of why he’s a game warden. He is committed to keeping peace in his ‘turf,’ and has gotten to know the people who live there well enough that several of them trust him. For Bowditch, there’s often a delicate balance between preserving people’s right to live independently as they wish, and preserving the land and animals. It’s not easy to do both, and it sometimes gets Bowditch into real danger. But he is skilled, both at ‘reading’ nature, and at interacting with the people who live in his area.

In Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, we meet U.S. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. After the tragic death of her husband, she left her home in New York, and joined the park service. Since then, she’s had several different assignments. She’s come to love the land and the wild animals, and takes seriously her duty to protect them. Because she knows the land so well, she also proves skilled at helping others survive, as well as tracking down criminals. Pigeon has had a few placements in more built-up areas (she has one in New Orleans, for instance), but she spends most of her time in more remote places.

There’s also Jenny Wilson, whom we meet in Dave Butler’s Full Curl. She’s a game warden in Banff National Park, Alberta. She’s passionate about her job, and feels a personal connection to the land and the animals. In fact, she’s more comfortable with the animals than she is with some of the people she meets. Always on the lookout for poachers, Jenny spends quite a lot of time patrolling. One day, she finds a dead sheep with its large, curled horns gone. Then she discovers that other sheep are going missing from the park. Now she suspects that large-scale poaching is going on, but finds it difficult at first to track the poachers down. When she finds out more about those responsible, she learns that they’re working for some powerful people. She continues to investigate, though, and finds a web of corruption and greed that puts her in real danger.

Park rangers, game wardens, and other outdoor experts have a unique perspective on land and animals. They can often see evidence that others can’t, and have solid survival skills. Stories featuring them often have a focus on natural settings, so they sometimes have a lot of interesting information on the way nature works. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Mother Nature’s Son.