In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle*

JunglesThere’s something about jungles and forests. If you don’t know what you’re doing, they’re very dangerous – even fatal. And if you couple that with the risk of murder, the context is even more menacing. So it’s little wonder that jungles feature in crime fiction. There’s also the fact that the jungle is, for a lot of people, an exotic setting. That can add a layer of intrigue to a crime novel.

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, for instance, we are introduced to Major John Despard. He is one of eight guests invited to a strange dinner party hosted by the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Four of those guests are sleuths (including Hercule Poirot). The other four (including Despard) are people Shiatiana thinks have gotten away with murder. During the dinner, Shaitana lets out various hints about the crimes some of his guests may have committed. That turns out to be a fatal mistake, as he is killed during a game of after-dinner bridge. The only possible suspects are the people Shaitana has accused of murder in his roundabout way, so Poirot and the other sleuths look into those people’s pasts to see which of them is guilty. That’s how they learn about Despard’s history. He’s spent plenty of time in wild places, and agreed to take Professor Luxmore and his wife into the Amazon jungle so that Luxmore could study some of the plant life there. Luxmore died there, and everyone said it was of a fever. But was it? Or did Despard commit murder? And if he did, did he also kill Shaitana? You’re absolutely right, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit.

In Aaron Elkins’ Little Tiny Teeth, anthropologist Gideon Oliver takes a trip into the Amazon rainforest. It’s partly a getaway adventure, and partly an opportunity to enhance his professional knowledge. Then, follow passenger Arden Scofield, an ethnobiologist, is murdered. Now, Oliver has to not only survive the jungle trip, but also find out which of the people with him is the killer.

There’s another Amazon jungle setting in Leighton Gage’s Dying Gasp. In that novel, Deputado Roberto Malan brings Chief Inspector Mario Silva a very disturbing case. Malan’s eighteen-year-old granddaughter, Marta, has gone missing. This isn’t an ordinary disappearance, either. The family is prominent and wealthy, and Malan doesn’t want any scandal attached to the Malan name. And scandal there would be, too. It turns out that Marta ran away from home after being beaten by her father. And her grandfather doesn’t want the media or the public to get word of the story. So he asks Silva to handle the case personally. This Silva agrees to do. The trail leads to Manaus, capital of the State of Amazonas, in the heart of the Amazon jungle. There, so it is believed, Marta is being held as part of an underage prostitution ring. If he’s going to learn the truth, and find Marta before it’s too late, Silva will have to go up against bureaucratic incompetence and greed, the jungle itself, and an old nemesis.

Of course, there are lots of other jungles besides the Amazon. For example, John Enright’s Apelu Soifua novels take place in American Samoa. Soifua is a police detective who’s originally from the island, but spent seven years with the San Francisco Police. In Pago Pago Tango, the first of the series, he’s returned to his homeland and now works with the local police force. One day, he’s called to the home of wealthy Gordon Turich, an executive with a powerful tuna company. Turich’s home has been invaded, and some things stolen. What Turich doesn’t tell Soifua is that one of the items is a gun. It turns out that that gun was used to commit murder, so Soifua soon finds himself going after a killer as well as a thief. Enright’s novels highlight the culture clash between the dominant US culture and the culture of the people who have always lived in Samoa. And that includes their views of living in and with the jungle.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s Surrender. That story features missing person expert Diane Rowe, who’s been commissioned by Wellington Inspector Frank McFay to help identify a ‘John Doe’ whose remains were found in Rimutaka State Forest. In one plot thread of this story, readers get to ‘follow along’ as Rowe goes into the forest where the remains were found, looks for any evidence at all that might help her, and slowly discovers the truth about the body. It turns out that this is a person who went missing twenty-five years earlier, so solving the case won’t be easy. But Rowe eventually learns the truth. And in more than one place in the novel, we see that a jungle can be a very dangerous place…

Although it’s not, strictly speaking, a jungle, a dense forest plays a role in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychologist Stephanie Anderson is living and working in Dunedin when she gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. Years ago, her younger sister Gracie was abducted, and never found. Not even a body was discovered. That story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own sad family history. When she was fourteen, her younger sister Gemma went missing. Despite a massive search, she was never found. Against her better professional judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and use what she learns from her client to find the person who devastated so many lives. She takes a journey back to her home town of Wanaka, and along the way, traces the person responsible. I won’t give away spoilers, but it’s another example of the danger of forests.

Jungles and forests are beautiful places, and necessary for the planet’s ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean they’re fun, worry-free places. At least, not in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Solomon Linda’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight, made popular by The Tokens. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has done a version, too, with the Mint Juleps, that I personally like very much. There are other versions, too, of course.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Donna Malane, John Enright, Leighton Gage, Paddy Richardson

24 responses to “In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle*

  1. One of the strangest mysteries by Michael Innes (and I mean REALLY strange) is The Daffodil Affair, from 1942, where much of the action takes place in the South American jungle. It would seem (at least to Innes and his detective, John Appleby) that the jungle is a perfect spot for isolated experiments in psychic research – not to mention a fine place to hatch plans for world domination…

    • Oh, that does sound strange, Les, and a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. It’s one of the Applebys that I haven’t read, so I’m very glad you filled in that gap.

  2. Margot: While Dr. Siri in the mysteries of Colin Cotterill is based in Vientiane he travels out into the Laotian jungles where I found his experiences in the spirit world to be truly spooky.

    • That’s a very clear example, Bill, of what I had in mind with this post. And I do like the Dr. Siri stories quite a lot; I’m glad you reminded me of them and filled in the gap.

  3. It does amaze me Margot how you come up with all these varieties of settings for your posts! I’m not sure that I have read any crime novels actually set in the jungle.

  4. A jungle setting, to me, creates the ultimate mood. Maybe because I’ve always considered them really creepy places. Perhaps I read “The Most Dangerous Game” at an impressionable age!

    • Oh, I remember that story, Elizabeth! And it is creepy, isn’t it? As for jungles, they can really be quite dangerous. It’s not surprising you find them really effective for creating a mood of danger.

  5. Margot, you’re so right about the jungle being such a beautiful place but dangerous in so many ways. I can’t think of a book right off I’ve read that was set in the jungle, but there have been way too many movies about murder and mayhem in the jungle. There seems like in the back of my mind a Doc Savage book from my youth that may have been set in the jungle. Enjoyed the post.

    • Thanks, Mason. And thanks for reminding me of Doc Savage; it’s been a long time! You’re right, too, about the number of TV shows and films that are set in jungles. It really does make for an effective setting if you want that layer of beauty, danger, and real creepiness…

  6. Margot, the jungle or forest has definitely not been a fun place in at least three novels I can recall — “The Most Dangerous Game,” the famous short story by Richard Connell (which Elizabeth has already mentioned); James Hadley Chase’s “The vulture is a Patient Bird,” loosely based on Connell’s story; and Jack Higgins’ “The Last Place God Made,” which is set in the Amazon rain forest. The thrill of adventure is a common factor in all the three stories. The Higgins’ book is really good.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Higgins, Prashant. He really wrote some fine spy and thriller fiction. And your other additions are fine examples of the jungle in crime/thriller fiction, too, for which thanks. I appreciate those gaps being filled in.

  7. Col

    I’m looking forward to reading some Leighton Gage in the future, but for today that annoying song is going to be bouncing around my brain…..grrrrr

    • You’re welcome, Col 😉 – And as to Leighton Gage, I think you’d like his work. I think his Mario Silva is a well-drawn character, and the Brazil setting is done quite well.

  8. I don’t think I have read much that is set in the jungle. I do remember Mrs. Pollifax on Safari. I loved Mrs. Pollifax.

    • The Mrs. Pollifax novels are great, aren’t they, Tracy? You’ve reminded me, too, that I’ve never put one of them in the spotlight. I need to do that. Soon. Thanks for jogging my memory.

  9. Jungles, like swamps, do make perfect crime backdrops, don’t they. It’s funny how crime writers look at the forest, say, and think, “Gee, what a perfect place to bury a body.” LOL

  10. One of the most memorable crime stories I read in recent years was Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay, with an extraordinay jungle setting in Papua New Guinea. Very unsettling and highly recommended

    • Oh, thank you, Moira. I do like Charlotte Jay’s work quite a lot. I’ll have to read that one (it’s one I’ve not (yet) read).And it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post.

  11. Jungles make for exciting thrillers — Jamie Freveletti’s “Running from the Devil” which is set mostly in the Colombian jungle is a great example.

  12. Kathy D.

    I don’t think I’ve read too many books set in jungles, except for perhaps the “concrete jungles” of Chicago and New York.
    The closest thing to wildlife I’ve seen for awhile is the new dachshund down the hall who gets overzealous while playing — and is now making us run for the ball!

    • It’s good to hear that new dachshund is settling in so well, Kathy. What fun!! And I don’t think ‘jungle’ is a bad word at all for large cities like NYC and Chicago. All kinds of things can happen in those places.

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