There are some people who are thoroughly at home in nature and with other animals. They understand nature’s rhythms, and can tell you all sorts of the things about the flora and fauna of a given place. In fact, there’s been a proposal that that sort of knowledge is an important intelligence, just as linguistic, mathematical and visual/spatial intelligence are.
Such people can make for very interesting characters in crime fiction. For one thing, they have a perspective on the world that the rest of us don’t always have. For another, their knowledge of nature can be very useful. And such a trait can add a measure of character development.
Any fan of Arthur Upfield’s work can tell you that his sleuth, Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte, is like that. He is well able, as he puts it, to read ‘the book of the bush.’ He’s as much at home outdoors as he is in a drawing room, and very often gets information others wouldn’t because of that. In novels such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he uses his naturalist intelligence to find clues, track people, and so on.
And Bony isn’t the only sleuth with a lot of naturalist intelligence. For instance, in Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, we first meet US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. She gave up life in New York City after the tragic death of her husband, and has joined the National Park Service. In that novel, she uses her developing understanding of how nature works to track down the killer of a fellow ranger. And, as the series goes on, she uses other naturalist skills to investigate. One of Pigeon’s major interests is protecting endangered species, and preserving the balance in nature. We see that woven through several of the stories.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe introduces readers to Andrea Curtin. An ex-pat American, she’s moved to Botswana to look for closure. Ten years earlier, she, her husband, and their son, Michael, lived in Botswana for a few years. When it was time to return to the US, Michael decided not to join his parents. He’d fallen in love with the land and wildlife of Botswana, and decided to join an eco-commune there. When he died, police said that a wild animal had likely killed him. But his body has never been found, and now his mother wants to find out the truth so she can move on. She asks Mma Precious Ramotswe to investigate, and Mma Ramotswe agrees to see what she can do. As the novel goes on, we learn how attuned to nature Michael Curtin was. He was certainly more comfortable in the natural world than he would have been, say, in a city. Finding out what became of Michael isn’t easy, but Mma Ramotswe discovers where he lived, tracks down some of the other people who lived there, and finds out the truth.
You might not expect a lawyer who lives and works in a major city to be particularly attuned to nature. But that’s exactly the case with Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. As this series begins, Martinsson is working for a successful Stockholm law firm. She has a promising career ahead of her, too. Then, she gets word that an old friend from her home town of Kiruna is in trouble and needs her help. Martinsson travels to Kiruna, where she works to find out the truth about a murder and clear her friend’s name. Her return to Kiruna ends up being permanent; and, as the series goes on, we see how comfortable Martinsson is in nature. She understands its rhythms well, and is often more at ease on her own outdoors than she is with other people.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). As such, she spends her share of time in nature, and is comfortable there. Even more comfortable in nature is Tempest’s lover, JoJo Kelly, who works for the Park and Wildlife Commission. He has a home, but he spends most of his life outdoors, in different parts of the land he tries to protect. And he is very much at home among the plants and animals he finds there. He can just about always find a place to rest, something to eat, and some shelter.
So can Jay Duggan, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He’s a naturalist/environmental activist who’s been working with the Los Angeles-based Millbrook Foundation. That group has been monitoring a company called Vestco, which is about to release a new seed coating. Vestco claims that the seed coating will greatly increase food production and, therefore, drastically reduce world hunger. But the Millbrook Foundation is deeply suspicious of the company and its claims. Still, they can’t seem to do anything to prevent the release. When it becomes clear that the seed coating will be made available, Duggan decides to retire and return to his native New Zealand. He invites two of his Millbrook colleagues to join him for a visit to New Zealand, and the three make the trip. What they don’t know is that they’re about to be framed for the murder of a Vestco employee. When they land in Auckland, they quickly learn that they’re now considered fugitives. So, they go on the run as they try to find out who the real killer is, and try to stop the release of the seed coating if they can. As the novel goes on, we see how well Duggan understands nature. He’s thoroughly attuned to wildlife, and more than once, that knowledge keeps him and his colleagues safe.
Naturalists have a fascinating perspective, and a deep awareness of the rhythms of life. They often see things that the rest of us might no notice. And they can make interesting fictional characters.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Irwin, who would have turned 55 as this is posted. His passion for wildlife, his effervescence, and his interest in preserving nature are sorely missed.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Earth and Sun and Moon.