Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the continuing issues that a lot of countries face is how to balance the need for conservation and ecological concern with the need for people to make a living. It’s not always as easy to resolve as it may seem, and several crime novels have addressed this issue. One of them is Paul Doiran’s Massacre Pond, the fourth in his Mike Bowditch series. Let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.
Bowditch is a game warden who’s been assigned to the easternmost district of Maine (and of the United States). One day he gets a call from an acquaintance, Billy Cronk, who works as a kind of caretaker/assistant on the large property of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Morse. Bowditch has had dealings with Cronk before, as Cronk has found it hard to stay out of trouble. But this is a different sort of call. During his morning rounds of the property, Cronk discovered the bodies of ten moose. They weren’t killed for food or sport, as the remains were simply left there, and Cronk is terribly upset about it. So is Bowditch when he sees the damage.
Bowditch’s regional supervisor Lieutenant Marc Rivard begins an investigation, and he and the team have plenty of suspects. Betty Morse has recently bought a large amount of land that she is planning to give to the U.S. as a carefully protected wildlife preserve. The process of doing this is more time-consuming and involves more legalities than it may seem, so it’s not a done deal yet. But it has stirred up a great deal of controversy. On the one hand, Morse has many strong supporters who want to see Maine’s natural resources preserved. Animal rights activists also support Morse, claiming that hunting and fishing are barbarous. On the other hand, there are many people in the area who depend on hunting, fishing and guiding for a living. Plenty live in rural poverty and hunt to eat. And that’s to say nothing of the lumber and building industry. These people fear for their livelihoods. There are also those who resent what they see as ‘do-good meddling’ in their lives. It’s a complicated dilemma, and there is every chance that the moose were killed by protestors against the proposed preserve.
But there are other possibilities. Morse has a way of getting people’s backs up, as the saying goes. She has a very strong personality and a great deal of determination, and there are those who say that she’s using her money and influence as a power grab. Others say her motives for this project are not exactly sincere. She’s rather enigmatic, too, with a past that may or may not be what she would like others to think it is.
There isn’t very much evidence in the case, and the Maine Warden Service comes in for a lot of criticism. Everything changes, though, when there’s a murder. Now the police and the Warden Service will have to act quickly before someone else is killed.
One important element in this novel is the debate over how best to manage natural resources. It’s a very difficult issue with a lot at stake, and the solution will not be a simple one. The novel doesn’t present ‘the answer,’ but Doiron does make one important point. Whatever approach is chosen, it’s going to need more than just a set of laws or money. If the local people – the people who have to live with the consequences – don’t support a solution, it won’t work.
Along with this debate is the element of the eastern Maine setting. It’s a rural area where hunting and fishing are ways of life, and where people have learned to respect nature. The scenery has a rugged natural beauty, and Bowditch and his colleagues would like to keep it that way.
Places like this attract all sorts of different people, and Doiron makes that clear. There are those who simply want peace and quiet, those who are especially fond of nature, and others who are anti-government. Still others are what you might call modern-day hippies. They all have in common a desire to live their lives as they see fit. Bowditch knows most of the people in his jurisdiction and has learned that working with them reasonably is a lot more successful than asserting his authority (unless he has to do that).
Bowditch himself loves the area, and enjoys his work. Here’s what he says to Morse about it:
‘‘I’m a game warden, Ms. Morse…hunting and trapping and fishing mean something to me. They’re part of our heritage here in Maine and important activities in my own life.’’
He knows, too, that a lot of the people he serves depend on that heritage to eat. So as you can imagine, he has some highly charged conversations with Morse.
The story is told from Bowditch’s perspective, so readers learn about his character. He is an independent, pragmatic thinker, and that’s gotten him into his share of trouble with some of his more politically astute colleagues and superiors. He isn’t exactly a stereotypical maverick who can’t work with others. But he is unafraid to take risks if he sees a need. He’s got a strained relationship with his mother and stepfather, but he doesn’t obsess about it. Mostly, he wants to do his job the best he can. So it’s doubly difficult and frustrating for him as this case drags on with no real success.
The solution to the mystery comes out through detection and deduction, so in that sense, this is a bit like a police procedural. It’s also similar in that readers get a look at the politics of the Game Warden Service. Readers who wonder what game wardens really do and what their lives are like will find this series informative on that score.
This isn’t a light, easy crime novel. Knowing the truth doesn’t make everything right again, and it certainly solve the problem of wildlife conservation. But we do learn the truth. There are a few story-arc ‘loose ends, but readers are not left in doubt about who is guilty or how Bowditch finds out.
Massacre Pond gives readers a look at life in rural Maine. It also highlights the debate about the most responsible way to protect wildlife and natural resources while still respecting those who make their livings from those very resources. It features a game warden who sees past the larger debate to the individuals he’s supposed to protect, and tries to find pragmatic ways to get the job done. But what’s your view? Have you read Massacre Pond? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 17 August/Tuesday 18 August – Seneca Falls Inheritance – Miriam Grace Monfredo
Monday 24 August/Tuesday 25 August – Bitter Wash Road – Garry Disher
Monday 31 August/Tuesday 1 September – A Bad Day For Sorry – Sophie Littlefield