The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Nature

NatureThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has reached the fourteenth of our stops on this dastardly and delightful tour. My thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for an excellent trip thus far. Today we’ve arrived at the beautiful N Valley, where you can see nature at its most glorious. There’s even a wonderful animal reserve here. Everyone’s getting out cameras and comfortable walking shoes and I’ll do that myself in a bit. Right now though, let me give you a friendly word or two of advice about nature, as that’s my contribution for this stop.

Tennyson described Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ and if you look at crime fiction, you’ll see he wasn’t far off. Wild animals, sudden storms, bush and wildfires and so on are very dangerous – even fatal at times. But they are also very useful for the fictional murderer. Sometimes nature can do a killer’s ‘dirty work’ for him or her. And sometimes nature can be very useful for covering up a crime.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Holmes and Watson get an early morning visit from Helen Stoner, who is afraid for her life. She lives with her stepfather Dr. Roylott at Stoke Moran, an estate which has gone to seed as the saying goes. Two years earlier, her twin sister Julia suddenly died one night after saying something about a speckled band. Helen doesn’t know exactly what that meant, but now, her stepfather has insisted that she move into Julia’s old room. What’s worse, she’s been hearing the same late-night low whistle and clanging noise that Julia heard shortly before her death. Helen begs for Holmes’ help and he and Watson go to Stoke Moran. They arrange for Helen to sleep elsewhere one night, and spend the night themselves in her room. During the night, a puff adder gets into her room and we see that someone has rigged the room so that the snake would attack whoever was sleeping in the bed. Someone wanted to kill Julia and now, someone wants to kill Helen. Holmes turns the tables though, and we see how dangerous a puff adder can really be.

In Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed, Jeff Anderson is working Karwir Station near Green Swamp Well when he disappears. When his horse comes back alone, everyone assumes that the horse threw him. That’s not a crazy assumption either; horses are large and strong and they don’t find it hard to throw a person from their backs. Trust me. And this particular horse was known for being difficult. Nobody much misses Anderson either. He was sadistic and mean-tempered and everyone thinks the ranch is better without him. But Sergeant Blake, who originally investigated the disappearance, has begun to think that Anderson was either murdered or went into hiding. So Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is assigned to re-open the case. Using his knowledge of nature and his ability to understand ‘the book of the bush,’ Bony is able to find out what happened to Jeff Anderson and who is responsible for his disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of the way nature can be involved in killing in Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger. One morning, the body of Maggie Drummond is found in the tiger pit of the zoo she and her husband Jack run. At first, everyone does the most natural thing in the world, which is to blame the tiger for the killing. But the medical examiner’s report shows that Maggie was stabbed, not clawed. So Captain Leopold and his team have to look for a ‘human tiger.’ In the end, the murderer is caught when an animal gives Leopold an important clue.

Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat introduces us to National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon. She’s assigned to the Guadaloupe Mountains National Park, where one day, she finds the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. All of the evidence suggests that Drury was killed by a mountain lion and that possibility upsets Pigeon. She doesn’t want the locals, who don’t like mountain lions anyway, to target them because of this death. A true lover of nature, Pigeon is afraid that there’ll be wholesale slaughter of the animals if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a human. Pigeon begins to ask questions and soon finds little bits of evidence that suggest that Drury’s killer was human. She keeps on digging, despite a great deal of pressure from many sides, and in the end, she finds out the truth. I don’t think it’s spoiling this story to say that nature plays a role in the dénouement, too.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a client with a very sad story. Andrea Curtin and family lived in Botswana for a few years, during which time her son Michael fell in love with the place and decided to remain there after his parents left. Michael joined an eco-commune and seemed very happy there until he disappeared. There was little evidence about what happened to him and the police could only conclude that a he’d been killed by a wild animal of some kind. But Andrea has always wondered exactly what happened to her son. Wanting closure, she asks Mma. Ramotswe to investigate and Mma. Ramotswe agrees. Slowly she tracks down the people who were with Michael when he disappeared, and she discovers what really happened to him.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into the murder of Reed Gallagher, who heads the Journalism department at her university. Kilbourn has several reasons to take an interest in this case. For one thing, she’s acquainted with Reed’s wife Julia. In fact, she is the one who goes with Inspector Alex Kequahtooway to break the news of Gallagher’s death to his wife. For another, Kilbourn teaches some of Gallagher’s students, including Kellee Savage. As it is, Kellee has some mental and emotional issues. But her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic after Gallagher’s death. Then, she disappears and is later found dead in a field, apparently of exposure. When Kilbourn puts the pieces of the puzzle together, she finds out the connection between the two deaths and some of the other events in the story. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Kellee’s murderer made use of the fact that even in early spring, Saskatchewan nights can be harsh.

And that’s the thing about nature. You always have to be very careful.  Now, time for a look at that animal reserve. Shall we go? I hear the animals are to die for… 😉


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Edward D. Hoch, Gail Bowen, Nevada Barr

24 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Nature

  1. I have recently started reading the CJ Box books, with a very outdoorsy setting, largely because of recommendations from the blogs on the Crime & Mystery fiction feed. And I absolutely love them! In general I’m a real city girl, in life and in reading, but these books are terrific. They make me nostalgic for the years we lived in America and travelled around as much as we could.

    • Moira – Oh, I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying those mysteries. The Joe Pickett stories are great and yes, they do remind one of just how dangerous nature can really be. I’m happy you like the setting too. There are some lovely wild places out there I think; it’s good to hear you had the chance to explore and savour some of them.

  2. Peter Reynard

    Was this inspired by your recent trip? I hear pretty much everything there can kill you including the plants. 🙂

    Also, Arthur Conan Doyle had such a way with titles. Made you want to read the book.

    And finally this… 🙂

    • Peter – Actually no, this one wasn’t inspired by my trip. I actually thought about this one for a while. Although I did see some very big crocodiles there, as you can tell in the ‘photo. You’re right too about Conan Doyle. I always liked his titles too. Oh, and thanks for that link. It shows far better than I could tell exactly what nature is like…

  3. I like graveyard settings myself. 🙂

  4. Anne H

    As an Australian reader, I do enjoy Nevada Barr’s books. A Superior Death was the first one I read, and since then I’ve followed Anna Pigeon around the US experiencing her successive workplaces. From bushfires to the setting of a pueblo that reminded me of Willa Cather’s novels, even to New York. They convey a terrific sense of place.
    Too, I must mention another Boney title by Arthur Upfield in which nature plays a decisive role – Death of a Lake. Actually Boney gets around so much in the course of his career that his experience of the natural world may be as illuminating to non-Australian readers as Anna Pigeon’s is to me for one.

    • Anne – Thanks for the suggestion of Death of a Lake. It certainly sounds like a terrific book, and I like the Upfield series (Must confess that’s one I haven’t (yet) read). And even though I’m from the US, I still learn a lot from reading about Anna Pigeon and her travels I agree that one gets a great sense of place from them.

  5. Sometimes nature can be judge and jury too – I’m thinking Grimpen Mire!!

  6. I have never read a Nevada Barr book. Hard to believe. I do have the first one and will get to it one of these days. Same for the C. J. Box series, but I don’t think that one has been going so long. Just bought the first one in that series.

    • Tracy – I think both of those series are terrific in their depiction of the land and of nature. I do recommend them both. They’re different to each other of course, but each is well done in my opinion.

  7. Margot: Mysteries with sleuths located on the perimeters of our world are bound to have an understanding for and respect of nature as they live in nature.

    Bony uses his tracking skills or those of local aborigines in almost every one of his books.

    In the Nathan Active series by Stan Black which is set upon Alaska’s northwest coast Active is often in the bush or at the coast.

    In Darkness at the Stroke of Noon by Dennis Richard Murphy, RCMP Sgt. Booker Kennison must cope with the Arctic winter and being cut off from all communication during a murder investigation in Nunavut when the satellite phone fails.

    • Bill – You have a well-taken point and you offer really fine examples. When sleuths have to deal with nature’s extremes, they do learn to respect nature and play by nature’s rules. That’s the only way to survive in those places, so they learn early that don’t have much choice. And I think that experience with seeing what nature can do has a real effect on their personalities.

  8. Fascinating examples, Ms. Kinberg, particularly Nevada Barr’s mysteries set in national parks which I have never read.

    • Prashant – I hope you’ll get the chance to try Nevada Barr’s work. She really does evoke a sense of setting very effectively. The stories are well-written too.

  9. The first two examples, reminded me of another Sherlock Holmes story, about the curious incident of the dog in the night time. I never guessed the killer in that story. Some interesting books for my ever growing TBR.

  10. Now you’re on my favourite subject – the countryside in crime fiction. And you’ve chosen a few of my favourite writers, especially Arthur Upfield. It was one of the things I used to love about Tony Hillerman too.

    • Sarah – Oh, I couldn’t agree one bit more about Hillerman. What a master of creating a strong sense of natural setting. And more than once his characters ge into real trouble because of nature, or rather, because of not respecting nature. I’m glad you mentioned his work.

  11. Oh I love this. I liked that you talked about Sherlock Holmes and The Speckled Band. I read ALL of the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was ten years old. They have been a favorite of mine for years. Did you ever see the A&E production of the Sherlock Holmes stories? The Speckled Band was one of the first episodes. It was really well done. After the story was completed, they had a little bit of a “snippet” at the end, which showed Holmes killing the snake. The room was gray, in shadows. You see the snake curling down the “rope”, and you see Holmes in his dressing gown (robe?), with his cane, posed, ready, and then he hits the snake again and again. What made me remember THAT moment was there was no music. It was just the scene, the shadows and the drama. It was really WELL DONE.

    • Oh, I did see that A & E production now you mention it. I’d forgotten all about it, so thanks for the good memory. It was a very atmospheric portrayal of the story I think. And I’ve always loved the Holmes stories too – very much. they really were part of the foundation of my love of crime fiction.

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