As a reader, I devour mysteries and thrillers. I love the twists and turns, the quirky characters, the surprise endings. But as a science writer, I am often dismayed by certain genre tendencies. Scientists are often dweeby stereotypes. Wild animals show up thousands of miles outside their range, and behave in ways they never would in real life.
I’m happy to suspend disbelief in novels, but not when vultures are circling the protagonist at midnight.
Mysteries don’t have to be nature-illiterate, as the novels and mystery series demonstrate. All the writers featured in this blog have field experience and an understanding of research and natural history. Conservation issues, and the clashes caused by differing values towards natural resources, often plays a central role. And the stories are page-turners. I hope you enjoy these picks – even if they mean you have some sleepless nights ahead.
As always, I welcome your own suggestions in the comments section.
The Anna Pigeon Novels
By Nevada Barr
Anna Pigeon, the protagonist in Nevada Barr’s 19-novel series, is a National Park Service ranger who finds perplexing crimes wherever she is stationed. Barr spent time working as a seasonal staffer in several national parks, and her experience shows. The descriptions of field research, park politics and conservation issues are pitch perfect, and has earned her a following among wildlife biologists and other National Park staff (some of whom have even written introductions to the novels).
The descriptions of life and conflict in field stations, and in park offices, is enjoyable reading for nature literature fans. But be prepared: Just when you’re settling in, there’s sure to be a shocking (and sometimes gruesome) crime. If you’re planning to take on along on your next park trip, you may find yourself sitting a little closer to the campfire, clutching a can of bear spray.
The Mike Bowditch Mysteries
By Paul Doiron
There are now a number of mystery series involving game wardens and conservation officers. Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series is the best of the bunch. Unlike many novels in this sub-genre, Doiron builds suspense without the need for shocking gore and high body counts. Bowditch is a warden in Maine, where he often deals with issues like feral hog control, predator politics, wildlife poaching and private forest ownership. And murder.
Doiron is excellent at creating flawed, relatable characters. I’ve found that, for many mystery series, you can read the novels in any order and not lose much. This is one you should read chronologically. Bowditch matures as a character through the series, and following his journey is a big part of the fun. Start with The Poacher’s Son and read them all.
The Sean Stranahan Mysteries
By Keith McCafferty
Keith McCafferty is one of my favorite outdoor writers, penning thoughtful, long-form pieces on fishing and hunting for Field & Stream. He’s equally adept as a novelist, capturing the quirks and conflicts of “New West” Montana. His eclectic protagonist, Sean Stranahan, is a painter, fly fishing guide and private detective who finds himself solving crimes involving bison management, lost Hemingway manuscripts and endangered rivers.
McCafferty clearly loves the landscape and the people who inhabit it. And best of all – for me, at least – there’s always a lot of fishing here. While there is plenty of murder and mayhem, there’s also humor here, too. I’ve read them all and look forward to future installments
A Stranger Here Below
By Charles Fergus
Charles Fergus has extensively covered scientific research and natural history (I also recently reviewed his guide, Make A Home for Wildlife ). A Stranger Here Below is not a nature mystery, per se. The story involves Gideon Stoltz, an inexperienced “Pennsylvania Dutch” sheriff making his way on the frontier of Central Pennsylvania in 1835.
Simply put, I loved this novel. It works as a compelling and complex historical mystery, but it’s more. The characters struggle mightily with the evil around them, trying to find purpose in a world that is frequently brutal and unforgiving. But they carry on. They find meaning in their connections to others, in song, in following dogs into thickets. Their lives are perpetually caught between beauty and violence, compassion and cruelty, love and hate.
Fergus also excels at capturing the spirit of what he calls the “thick and uncivil places” of the Eastern United States. That’s on display here. The details, whether of a grouse’s feathers or a horse’s gait or burning charcoal for an iron mill, are flawless. Fergus has a curious naturalist’s attention to detail. This is a gem. I hope we see more of Gideon Stoltz in the future.
Where the Crawdads Sing
By Delia Owens
I reviewed this one already, for my holiday book picks . But I loved it so much I’ll include it here as well. Delia Owens is a wildlife biologist, best known for her work in the Kalahari on lions and in Zambia on elephants.
This is a fine mystery. And it includes a self-taught swamp naturalist, field guides and plenty of flora and fauna of Coastal Carolina. Every bibliophile cliché applies here: I couldn’t put it down. And I didn’t want it to end.
A Hunt for Justice
By Lucinda Schroeder
This isn’t a new book, and it’s not fiction. But it’s worth seeking out, because it’s as chilling and thrilling as any novel on this list. Schroeder was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undercover agent in the early 1990s. She not only had to deal with dangerous criminals in the field, but with often-sexist fellow agents within her agency.
This book follows Schroeder’s assignment to bust an illegal poaching ring in Alaska, involving an unethical guide who broke numerous violations to get his clients big game. Posing as a wealthy hunter, she joined the poacher’s camp. The result is a heart-pounding and often-infuriating look at poaching, as well as the grave dangers faced by those solving wildlife crimes.
I love the trend in nature writing to explore areas outside the usual wilderness areas and national parks: the urban wilds, the forgotten and overlooked spots. The wildlife, plants, land and water of coastal Carolina play central roles, and the natural history information is integrated in a way that makes a much richer story.