The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has reached the fourteenth of our stops on this dastardly and delightful tour. My thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for an excellent trip thus far. Today we’ve arrived at the beautiful N Valley, where you can see nature at its most glorious. There’s even a wonderful animal reserve here. Everyone’s getting out cameras and comfortable walking shoes and I’ll do that myself in a bit. Right now though, let me give you a friendly word or two of advice about nature, as that’s my contribution for this stop.
Tennyson described Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ and if you look at crime fiction, you’ll see he wasn’t far off. Wild animals, sudden storms, bush and wildfires and so on are very dangerous – even fatal at times. But they are also very useful for the fictional murderer. Sometimes nature can do a killer’s ‘dirty work’ for him or her. And sometimes nature can be very useful for covering up a crime.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Holmes and Watson get an early morning visit from Helen Stoner, who is afraid for her life. She lives with her stepfather Dr. Roylott at Stoke Moran, an estate which has gone to seed as the saying goes. Two years earlier, her twin sister Julia suddenly died one night after saying something about a speckled band. Helen doesn’t know exactly what that meant, but now, her stepfather has insisted that she move into Julia’s old room. What’s worse, she’s been hearing the same late-night low whistle and clanging noise that Julia heard shortly before her death. Helen begs for Holmes’ help and he and Watson go to Stoke Moran. They arrange for Helen to sleep elsewhere one night, and spend the night themselves in her room. During the night, a puff adder gets into her room and we see that someone has rigged the room so that the snake would attack whoever was sleeping in the bed. Someone wanted to kill Julia and now, someone wants to kill Helen. Holmes turns the tables though, and we see how dangerous a puff adder can really be.
In Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed, Jeff Anderson is working Karwir Station near Green Swamp Well when he disappears. When his horse comes back alone, everyone assumes that the horse threw him. That’s not a crazy assumption either; horses are large and strong and they don’t find it hard to throw a person from their backs. Trust me. And this particular horse was known for being difficult. Nobody much misses Anderson either. He was sadistic and mean-tempered and everyone thinks the ranch is better without him. But Sergeant Blake, who originally investigated the disappearance, has begun to think that Anderson was either murdered or went into hiding. So Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is assigned to re-open the case. Using his knowledge of nature and his ability to understand ‘the book of the bush,’ Bony is able to find out what happened to Jeff Anderson and who is responsible for his disappearance.
There’s a very interesting case of the way nature can be involved in killing in Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger. One morning, the body of Maggie Drummond is found in the tiger pit of the zoo she and her husband Jack run. At first, everyone does the most natural thing in the world, which is to blame the tiger for the killing. But the medical examiner’s report shows that Maggie was stabbed, not clawed. So Captain Leopold and his team have to look for a ‘human tiger.’ In the end, the murderer is caught when an animal gives Leopold an important clue.
Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat introduces us to National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon. She’s assigned to the Guadaloupe Mountains National Park, where one day, she finds the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. All of the evidence suggests that Drury was killed by a mountain lion and that possibility upsets Pigeon. She doesn’t want the locals, who don’t like mountain lions anyway, to target them because of this death. A true lover of nature, Pigeon is afraid that there’ll be wholesale slaughter of the animals if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a human. Pigeon begins to ask questions and soon finds little bits of evidence that suggest that Drury’s killer was human. She keeps on digging, despite a great deal of pressure from many sides, and in the end, she finds out the truth. I don’t think it’s spoiling this story to say that nature plays a role in the dénouement, too.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a client with a very sad story. Andrea Curtin and family lived in Botswana for a few years, during which time her son Michael fell in love with the place and decided to remain there after his parents left. Michael joined an eco-commune and seemed very happy there until he disappeared. There was little evidence about what happened to him and the police could only conclude that a he’d been killed by a wild animal of some kind. But Andrea has always wondered exactly what happened to her son. Wanting closure, she asks Mma. Ramotswe to investigate and Mma. Ramotswe agrees. Slowly she tracks down the people who were with Michael when he disappeared, and she discovers what really happened to him.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into the murder of Reed Gallagher, who heads the Journalism department at her university. Kilbourn has several reasons to take an interest in this case. For one thing, she’s acquainted with Reed’s wife Julia. In fact, she is the one who goes with Inspector Alex Kequahtooway to break the news of Gallagher’s death to his wife. For another, Kilbourn teaches some of Gallagher’s students, including Kellee Savage. As it is, Kellee has some mental and emotional issues. But her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic after Gallagher’s death. Then, she disappears and is later found dead in a field, apparently of exposure. When Kilbourn puts the pieces of the puzzle together, she finds out the connection between the two deaths and some of the other events in the story. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Kellee’s murderer made use of the fact that even in early spring, Saskatchewan nights can be harsh.
And that’s the thing about nature. You always have to be very careful. Now, time for a look at that animal reserve. Shall we go? I hear the animals are to die for… ;-)