Got to Get Back to the Land*

Hiking and CampingMany people enjoy the feeling of ‘getting away from it all’ by taking camping and hiking trips. There is definitely something to be said for spending some time with nature, turning off the computer and the telephone and enjoying some peace. Other people camp because that’s their culture and way of life. Either way, camping can be a rich experience. But as crime fiction shows us, camping isn’t always the relaxing, peaceful experience it’s sometimes made out to be.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family tours the Middle East, making a special excursion to Petra. While they’re on their camping/hiking/sightseeing tour, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be heart failure. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. It soon turns out that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned, and Poirot interviews each of the people at the sightseeing encampment. There are plenty of suspects too, since Mrs. Boynton was a tyrant and a mental sadist who kept everyone in her family cowed. In the end Poirot establishes who the murderer is. One of the interesting clues in this murder comes from the location of each of the campers’ tents.

Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane decides to take a hiking holiday in Have His Carcase. She’s just been through a traumatic time standing trial for murder (Strong Poison gives the details on that experience), and she is in need of a rest. During her hiking trip, Vane stops one afternoon for a rest and soon dozes off. When she wakes up, she finds the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities who start the investigation. The dead man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a nearby hotel. At first it looks as though Alexis may have committed suicide, but it soon turns out that he was murdered. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who killed Alexis and why. So much for a peaceful hiking holiday…

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate introduces readers to Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP. Matteesie has been asked to investigate the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. He’s getting ready to do just that when he witnesses the shooting death of Native activist Morton Cavendish. It’s not long before Matteesie establishes that the two cases are related, so he changes his focus to an investigation of the murder. He’s hoping that by finding the killer, he may find the answer to what happened to the plane and the men on it. As Matteesie investigates, we get a look at the way things are done in Canada’s Far North. One fact of life there is that people go on hunting and fishing trips that can take them far from home. So they camp. In fact, it’s a popular tourist activity too. It’s not surprise then, that there are several scenes in this novel that take place at different camps. One of those scenes in fact tells us a lot about the mystery.

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat also takes place in Canada’s Far North. Edie Kiglatuk is a hunting guide with an excellent reputation. That reputation is threatened when one of her clients Felix Wagner is shot during a camping/hunting expedition. At first his death is put down to a tragic accident and Edie is given the message to just leave it alone. But then her stepson Joe commits suicide (or did he?) and there’s another death as well. Soon Edie is involved in a complicated case of murder and greed. If she’s going to clear her reputation and find out why her stepson died, she’s going to have to find the murderer. She works with Ellesmere Island police offer Derek Palliser to investigate the case. As they do so, we see how deeply camping is embedded in that culture. People go out for days or more to hunt, trap and fish and in that climate, a good campsite can mean the difference between life and death.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, novice psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson takes an unexpected camping trip. One of her clients Elisabeth Clark is troubled by the disappearance years earlier of her younger sister Gracie. This story haunts Anderson, as her own sister Gemma disappeared in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Anderson decides to lay her ghosts to rest, so to speak, by finding out who was responsible for abducting the young girls. So she makes a trip from Dunedin to her family’s home in Wanaka, trying to trace the culprit as she goes. During one stop she meets a hunting guide named Dan, who invites her on a hunting and shooting trip. Anderson demurs at first, but Dan wants to prove to her that


‘…all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’


Finally Anderson agrees and she and Dan take a three-day camping and hiking trip. Making the trip doesn’t catch the criminal. But it does give Anderson a new kind of confidence as well as some interesting and important information. And she finds herself more interested in Dan than she’d imagined she would be.

There’s also Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger, so she spends quite a bit of time camping. She’s assigned to different parks for different amounts of time, so her accommodations vary. But she’s grown quite accustomed to tents, bedrolls and campfires.

There are a lot of other novels of course that feature camping trips (I know, I know, fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores). And in novels such as Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels, we meet groups of people for whom camping is a way of life. It certainly does have a lot to offer. But – erm – do be careful…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, made popular by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Upfield, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, M.J. McGrath, Nevada Barr, Paddy Richardson, Scott Young

21 responses to “Got to Get Back to the Land*

  1. Yes , when there’s a camping trip in a book, the reader is prepared for no good to come of it. Camping features a fair bit in CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series, set in Wyoming, and I enjoy reading about it without feeling any desire to try it myself – and that’s even if it was guaranteed free from murders, rogue hunters, kidnappers, wild men etc etc.

    • Moira – Good point about the Joe Pickett series. A lot of people, either because it’s part of their culture/lifestyle or because they enjoy it, go camping in those novels. Thanks for filling in that gap. And as you say, you always have that feeling in a crime novel that where there’s a campsite, there’s going to be trouble. And even under the best of circumstances, camping’s not for everyone.

  2. Col

    McGrath’s White Heat is on the pile somewhere. Hoping to read it later this year, if time allows.

  3. My family were never very keen on camping trips, but I always had a tendency to romanticise them until I read D.A. Serra’s ‘Primal’, which features the camping trip from hell in otherwise very scenic Minnesota. Very moving, however, as it talks about a mother’s primal urge to protect her children. But I think I would rather protect them in surroundings I can handle…

    • Marina Sofia – I have to admit I’ve not read Primal, but I can completely understand what you mean about wanting to protect one’s children. That is a very deeply-rooted instinct. And yes, I think it is easier to conceive of protecting children in easier-to-manage surroundings.

  4. Camping trips in murder mysteries…scary stuff! There’s a bit of a horror element there with the remoteness and exposure. The times I’ve gone hiking or camping, these stories always come to mind!

    • Elizabeth – I agree; the mix of camping and murder can be a really scary one. And I hadn’t even mentioned the number of horror stories and films that take place on camping trips. And you’re right – they always come back to you when you’re on a camping trip!

  5. Margot – Yes another cinematic joggle of the memory : the camping trip Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore take in the movie Free Soul (1931), not exactly a mystery but with lots of crime overtones. Anyway they go with the best of intentions but alas the results aren’t exactly satisfactory.

    • Bryan – I’ll confess I’ve not seen that film. But I like both actors’ work, and it certainly sounds like an excellent example of what I had in mind when I put this post together. Thanks – and thanks for the film recommendation. I’ll have to check it out.

  6. When I think of camping – or roughing it – I cannot help but think of Lord of the Flies. Shuddering as I write this. Just look what happened to them, all alone having to fend for themselves. I went camping once and lasted just the one night. The tent was a real boy scout effort and we were in a field which was full of all manner of nocturnal creatures and noises and it rained. Boy did it rain. We got drenched – murder was on my mind – but I resisted. Next morning we awoke to the smell of bacon frying and opened the flap to find ourselves surrounded by the high end of camping. Huge tents with all mod-cons. Fridges, TV portable loos, and proper cooking facilities; we had two sticks to rub together (hubby was once a scout after-all) and after an hour or more trying to get a flame going, gave in and asked for the lighter from our posh neighbours. My back ached, the thought of going behind the hedge to relieve myself was a step too far. Though our son loved every minute of it and so did hubby, I put my foot down and the rest of our ‘camping’ holiday was spent in the wonderful B&B nearby – we had the walks, the fresh air and the nice clean sheets and comfy bed, proper loo and a table to eat proper cooked food when we got back. Oh and Charles 1 apparently slept in our room and our bed, and was polite enough not to haunt us as was his custom. Yes murder in the great outdoors – I can well understand how it might happen.

    • Jane – Oh, what a story! I went camping like that as a kid a few times, but now that I’m – ahem – not a kid any more, I no longer think of a tent, a hedge and two sticks as anywhere near sufficient. I’m glad you found a comfortable place to stay for the rest of your trip – without being haunted. No doubt about it; camping trips can be fraught with all kinds of problems, including murder. It can be lovely to get away for a few days, but camping isn’t for everyone.

  7. I used to love camping and hiking and canoeing which is why I always love Nevada Barr’s books. Like Anna, I felt more at home outdoors and less aware of crime than I do in a populated area. Now I’m older and we don’t camp out anymore; I miss it terribly. Maybe if people got to know the outdoors better, they wouldn’t be afraid of evil people out there.

    • Barbara – I think a lot of people, like you, find camping a wonderful experience. And I agree with you that the more we know about the outdoors and the environment, the more we can appreciate it. Camping may not be for everyone, but certainly I think understanding and caring for the environment is.

  8. I have read the Dorothy Sayers, and hope to get to all the others eventually. I also have White Heat in the TBR pile.

    I always loved to camp, but only when I have someone else knowledgeable to organize it. I don’t mind the work, just don’t have the expertise.

    • Tracy – I know exactly what you mean. It’s just more comfortable if you know that there’s someone along who knows what s/he’s doing. I hope you’ll like White Heat – I know I found it an absorbing read.

  9. kathy d.

    I love camping — in my own mind and in books. Or in enjoying friends’ camping vacations. Not in my reality.
    I like electricity, bathrooms with showers, beds, TVs, etc.
    However, I love Nevada Barr’s books; perhaps they let me enjoy the outdoors experience, even caves and the worst winters, from the comfort of my own home. I am vicariously out in the wilderness, but can close the book any time.
    However, books set in outdoor locations do give one a sense of peace and quiet and enjoyment of nature. They can be stress relievers. So
    I recommend books with these settings.

    • Kathy – It’s true isn’t it that there’s a difference between a vicarious camping trip and a real one. And you’re right: Nevada Barr’s novels really do transport the reader to whichever setting Anna Pigeon is visiting in the novel. Even if one wouldn’t want to live outdoors or even camp for a short time, it can be a terrific experience to read about outdoor places.

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