I Wish You Could See This Great Mystery*

naturalistsThere 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.


In Memoriam…



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.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Geoffrey Robert, Nevada Barr

29 responses to “I Wish You Could See This Great Mystery*

  1. HELLO, I wish happy days from Turkey.

  2. kathy d

    Great topic. I love global mysteries that tell of the flora and fauna of a region. Certainly, Adrian Hyland, Asa Larsson, Nevada Barr and Alexander McCall Smith do that.
    I have learned more about our national parks and their environs from Anna Pigeon books than I ever knew.
    And Hyland’s books taught me a lot and sent me to learn further about the Asutralian outback and the Indigenous peoples.
    But I also want to plug Angela Savage’s books. Jayne Keeney’s adventures have taught me much more about Thailand than I ever knew, including about its vegetation on the coastlines and ts sealife. Many a time I spent googling about the regions where Jayne is having an adventure and even about the ancient sea animals and fish in the region.
    It is delightful to read a book with a solid mystery, good characters — and which teaches or spurs one to learn more about a country’s environment.
    I think it also teaches us to be even more dogged in defending the planet.

    • You make a well-taken point, Kathy. Books that feature naturalists do teach readers a lot about a particular place, and they don’t have to sound ‘information heavy.’ That, to me, is why naturalists make such interesting characters. They show us that perspective on the world. And if that helps us treat the planet in more healthful ways, so much the better.

  3. As a city slicker, I’m always impressed by people who understand the rhythms of the natural world. No examples to add tonight, except to say that I’m currently re-reading Rebecca and being reminded of how wonderfully du Maurier writes about the natural world, which she always makes sound raw and powerful rather than pretty – great stuff!

    • You know, FictionFan, I hadn’t thought about it until you brought it up. But you’re right about du Maurier. She was really able to evoke the natural world, and without going on about it, either. As you say, her focus was its strength and potential danger, but still – impressive. And I’m with you: I have a great respect for naturalists and those who really understand how nature works. I have a couple of friends like that, and am in awe of their wisdom when it comes to such things.

  4. kathy d

    I also love when naturalists and animal experts show up on TV shows with zoo or other exotic animals and educate people about them.
    And a piece of information since this post is dedicated to Steve Irwin.
    His 12-year-old son, Robert, who is the spitting image of his father, was on Jimmy Fallon’s show a few days ago. He brought a huge snake and a sloth and a few others I missed. It was fun.
    But Robert knows a lot and was explaining a lot about the animals to the viewers. He is good-natured and fun liie his father. It’s good to see that he has grown into an animal lover and educator about the planet’s creatures.

    • It’s good to know Robert is doing well, Kathy. So, I inderstand, is Irwin’s daughter, Bindi. It was a tragedy to lose Steve Irwin as soon as we did. But I think he would’ve been proud of the way his children are turning out.

  5. Margot: RCMP Inspector Matthew “Matteesie” Kitogitak in the pair of books by Scott Young, having grown up on the land, has a knowledge of the land and peoples of northern Canada that reminded me of Napoleon “Boney” Bonaparte.

    • You’re right, Bill. He certainly does have that awareness. He’s also a very interesting character in other ways, too. I wish there’d been more of those novels.

  6. I love reading about those who have an affinity with nature within crime fiction but I can’t claim to be one of them.

  7. Margot, Steve Irwin’s death was so needless — he went too soon. This is a fine tribute to his memory.

  8. A wonderful way to pay tribute to Steve Irwin, Margot. Great examples. This type character does add a great deal to a story.

  9. Tim

    And I now think of Nero Wolfe and his orchids; well, he doesn’t exactly fit the pattern you have outlined, but — you have to admit — Nero loves nature (although it is limited to orchids)!

  10. Michael Mallory and Marilyn Victor wrote of couple of mysteries in this field, the second, Killer Instinct, focused on wolves. I wish they had expanded this series because I enjoyed the the first two stories very much.

    • Yes, of course, Pat!!! The ‘Snake’ Jones novels were great. It would have been great to have more of them. Thanks for including those books; that was a gap I’d left.

  11. I’m a real city girl, and not all that interested in nature and wildlife, so these books aren’t always my favourites. But I do enjoy CJ Box’s books about Wyoming Ranger Joe Pickett, which are very much in the mode you are talking about.

    • Yes, they are, Moira. I think Box writes very well about nature, and PIckett is quite attuned to it. And the plots and characters are well-done. One doesn’t need to be a naturalist to really enjoy them.

  12. kathy d

    I am a city slicker, too, but I enjoy reading about the national parks in Anna Pigeon’s world, the Australian outback in Emily Tempest’s world and Jayne Keeney’s environment in Thailand. I love to read about Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana and the pen fields.
    I look to books to give me a distraction from big city life, and read about open spaces, animals and plant life. That’s one of the joys of reading fiction of any type — getting out of one’s environment and being placed in another.
    And I also enjoyed the one book set in 1960s North Dakota on a farm with Marjorie Tremaine. I hear she’s coming to NYC. I like her, but I enjoyed her farm and the open fields in the northern state.

    • It’s quite true, Kathy. There’s something about open spaces and nature that can be especially appealing for folks who live in big cities, or crowded suburbs. And you’ve given some great examples, too. Those authors create, I think, a very strong sense of place.

  13. Such a sad loss when Steve Irwin died so horrifically. I love nature, so books that encompass this type of setting really appeal to me. Thanks for the recommendations, Margot!

    • It was a terrible loss, wasn’t it, Sue? He gave a great deal to the world. Like you, I love nature, ‘though I’m no naturalist, by any means. And I find characters who do understand nature to be very interesting.

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