There’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 Rose 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.