Explore these mysteries and feast on stories of wardens, rangers, biologists and birders who unravel life's mysteries in wild surroundings.
Kathryn A. Kahler, Natasha Kassulke and David L. Sperling
Editor's note: We read a few gripping mysteries in which the hunter and hunted were actually hunters, the action twisted through parks or wilderness, or the protagonist was a natural resources professional. We got hooked and asked ourselves how many mystery series had resource management themes, central characters and settings? That list was darn long, so we settled on reading a selection of mysteries whose principal figure had a natural resources job. Here are some of the series we found that combine your interests in outdoor jobs, nature and adventure with some ripping-good yarns. Polish up your gift list, hit the library or line the shelves of your cabin with these novels to find years of colorful characters who are equally passionate about justice and protecting the outdoors.
Author: C.J. Box
C.J. Box's detective, Joe Pickett, is a game warden with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, assigned to the small regional post of Saddlestring in the Bighorn Mountains. The open western landscape and big spaces of the Bighorns, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone area add prominent character and flavor to each of the 10 Pickett novels crafted thus far. The page-turning tales also give readers insights into falconry, the Endangered Species Act, ecoterrorism, survivalist culture, coal bed methane extraction, ranch life, biomining of genetic organisms, anti-hunting culture, global warming and western hunts.
The stories are engrossing and the reader quickly decides to read the whole series to follow the interwoven fates of his characters over time – the warden, his family, his battles with game and fish department bureaucrats, politicians, family stresses and his friendship with a loner and falconer who has a mysterious history of covert intelligence. Get hooked and start with the first in the series, Open Season.
Author: Bill Knox
Scottish author Bill Knox was a prolific writer, journalist and broadcaster who wrote more than 60 crime novels over a 55-year career. Knox also hosted a popular TV show Crime Desk for 12 years seeking public help to solve cases in central Scotland. His 15 Webb Carrick books take readers on adventures along the West Highland coast. It's especially nice to keep an atlas handy to follow the routes as Carrick's patrol vessels Marlin and Tern negotiate rocky shoals, craggy bluffs and protected harbors on the Scottish coast. Carrick is also a skilled diver whose sidekick, Chief Petty Officer William "Clapper" Bell, also dons the scuba "rubbers" (wetsuit) to explore sunken skullduggery in every story. It's fun to learn some of the Scottish terms and to read stories from an era when nobody thought twice about nipping into the Scotch when the morning coffee wasn't enough to take the chill off a damp, windy day.
The stories are a bit formulaic moving at a modest pace and building like the sea itself to a crashing finish in the last 20 pages as each 180- to 200-page tale builds to a gun battle or brawl with the bad guys, staving off high seas, saving an understated love interest, and restoring order to the sleepy Scottish coastal hamlets. The plots revolve around nautical and fisheries issues like contraband smuggling, naval defense, North Sea oil exploration, aquaculture and tournament fishing. These are fun, easy reads.
Author: Joseph Heywood
In Joseph Heywood's Woods Cop mysteries conservation officer (CO) Grady Service works the Upper Peninsula where he was raised by his dad, a hard-drinking CO who died on the job just after Grady's 16th birthday. Service's background mirrors the author's – a student athlete and a former marine who served in Vietnam before returning to the UP. Heywood went on to a 30-year PR career. He's also an accomplished photographer, painter, poet, and he still spends a month a year accompanying Michigan conservation officers on their patrols through the UP's wooded, remote counties. His character, Grady Service, has worked the UP for more than 20 years when we meet him in his first story. Service's devotion to his work has clearly taken a toll on his personal life. He never cozied up to the comforts of home, home life or family as he has been on his own since his teen years and a short, broken marriage. Service graduated from living in an old Airstream trailer to building a fairly simple shack with sleeping quarters on a mattress pad plunked on top of footlockers. He tends to an ornery cat and a big dog. He has on again, off again relationships with a few local women, but his passion is protecting the forested UP spaces, particularly a deep woods portion of his home turf called the Mosquito Wilderness Tract.
Heywood gives readers the flavor of Youper justice, a sense of the legal profession, a feel for conservation department bureaucracy and the work lives of a conservation warden's comrades in backwoods law enforcement. Through seven stories, Service tackles issues like diamond exploration, wolf reintroduction, international marketing of wild animal parts, fish poaching, a serial killer who stalks conservation officers, and the salmon and caviar trade. If you grew up in northern Wisconsin or spent time in the UP, you will feel in familiar surroundings with both the characters and settings in Heywood's stories.
Author: Sandi Ault
The Wild Mystery Series features Jamaica Wild, a strong-minded heroine who builds ties with the southwestern Native American community as she investigates murders, fights wildfires, protects endangered wildlife and raises her wild wolf pup named Mountain.
Wild Indigo, first in the series, introduces Wild and several recurring key characters. One of them, Momma Anna, is the mother of a Pueblo Indian who was trampled by a herd of buffalo. Momma Anna becomes Wild's mentor as she learns the traditions and ceremonies of Pueblo life. Wildmust investigate the son's death to clear her own name.
Wild Inferno takes place in the rugged Colorado Rockies near Chimney Rock as wildfires threaten celebrants in a traditional Pueblo ceremony. The author's experiences as a wildland firefighter convey the danger the fire teams face as they search for people trapped by the blaze. A vivid fire scene is shrouded in mystery when Wild discovers a dying firefighter who implores her to "save the grandmother."
In Wild Sorrow, Wild discovers the body of an elderly woman in the ruins of a remote Indian school. In her search for clues to the murder, she unleashes an avalanche of sentiment from the Native Americans who had attended the school as children. Momma Anna again plays a prominent role as does her wild partner, Mountain, now a full-grown wolf.
Author: David Leitz
Fly-fishing fanatics will find this series not only exciting, but full of great fishing tips. Max Addams is a likable big-city advertiser turned fly-fishing guide whose fishing lodge is the setting for murder, scandalous politics, pacts with the Mob, shady dealings of a local lumber company, and tensions between local history buffs and the native Wabnaki Indians. Each contributes to the decidedly "dead" themes with a fly-fishing twist.
In Casting in Dead Water, Max's good friend is murdered for knowing too much about a local lumber company's clear-cutting practices, which have caused trout die-offs in the stream that flows through Max's resort. Dying to Fly Fish relates the murder of a man who produced a beer commercial that was shot on the grounds of the Whitefork Lodge. Max teams up with an old friend and Wabnaki Indian chief in Hooked on Death, to solve the mystery of a human skull pulled from a stream by one of his fly-fishing guests.
Author: Ken Goddard
Ken Goddard has been likened to Tom Clancy and his books definitely have more shoot-'em-up kind of action than some of the other collections. His protagonist, Henry Lightstone, was a San Diego homicide investigator before becoming a federal wildlife agent. In his new profession, he works undercover investigating the leader of a malicious biker gang in Anchorage, Alaska in Prey, and is ultimately hunted down by ICER, a group of ruthless industrialists and financiers bent on destroying the environmental movement.
In the sequel, Wildfire, Lightstone must deal with a group of equally radical environmental activists intent on countering ICER's actions. Double Blind takes place in the Pacific Northwest where Lightstone and his undercover team pose as animal smugglers in a sting operation that once again involves ICER's treacherous tactics. This time a corrupt congressman tries to blow Henry's cover and a band of ex-Army Rangers recruit some right-wing gun nuts to help hunt Henry down.
Goddard's law enforcement and forensic training as Director of the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab give his books a CSI-type, action-packed zeal.
Author: Ben Rehder
If humorous, light-hearted escapades are up your alley, check out this series by Ben Rehder, a master of the comic crime novel – with an outdoor slant. Full of colorful characters and places – with names like Red O'Brien, Billy Don Craddock and the Circle S Ranch – Blanco County, located dead-center in the heart of Texas, is the perfect setting for Rehder's wacky satires.
His first novel, Buck Fever, features Game Warden John Marlin as he prepares for the opening of deer hunting season. His preparations are complicated by a local high-roller whose ranch is the hub of an incredible drug smuggling scheme involving a band of Colombian drug-runners, a whacked out veterinarian, Marlin's down-on-his-luck best friend, and a herd of Boone and Crockett trophy bucks with a fortune stashed in their bellies.
Rehder's other books look to be equally entertaining. A preview of Guilt Trip from his website describes the plot like this: "When the tequila slamming, skirt-chasing treasurer of the local Rotary Club goes missing, and his vehicle is found in the river the day after a big flood, Marlin knows he's found his latest distraction. At nearly the same time, a house down the road explodes in a shower of drug paraphernalia, and an exotic car turns up stolen from the missing man's barn. Marlin and good friend Sheriff Bobby Garza are soon overwhelmed, trying to figure out how everything connects together. As the bullets start to fly and the bodies start to drop, talented, Edgar Award-nominated author Ben Rehder keeps the plot moving and the laughs coming…."
Author: Jessica Speart
One of the most prolific of eco-thriller authors, Speart's mysteries take readers to places like the Louisiana bayous, the Nevada deserts, Hawaii's lush serenity and the busy blare of New York City. Rachel Porter is a disillusioned actress turned wildlife investigator described as gutsy, sassy, junk food-loving, recklessly sexy and wonderfully appealing. Whether or not such descriptions conform to your stereotypical notion of a federal wildlife agent – well, you'll have to be the judge. Porter's friends are just as quirky and run the gamut from her cross-dressing interior decorator to an ex-pro wrestler turned gourmet cook landlord.
The central threads of Speart's stories are endangered wildlife her heroine fights to protect from poachers and other insidious characters. In Tortoise Soup, Porter investigates the disappearance of 350 endangered tortoises from their federal hatching site in the Nevada desert, and in Bird Brained it's an alleged smuggler of exotic cockatoos and parrots in Miami. When she ruffles the feathers of one too many upper level bureaucrats, she is banished to the wilds of Montana to probe the mysterious disappearance of grizzlies and Blackfeet Indians in A Killing Season.
The tenth and most recent book in the series, Unsafe Harbor, finds Porter in her native New York City, a far cry from her previous assignment in Hawaii, in Restless Waters. Back in the Big Apple, Porter gets wrapped up in a murder case involving a shawl made of Tibetan antelope fur, illegally smuggled, of course.
Author: Kirk Mitchell
Mitchell is well-known for his many novels – like With Siberia Comes a Chill and The New Barbarians – and novelizations (movies made into books) – Mississippi Burning and Backdraft. A veteran law enforcement officer from the Sierra Nevadas, his two-book series featuring Dee Laguerre are eco-thrillers. Mitchell produced another somewhat related series of Native American mysteries featuring FBI Special Agent Anna Turnipseed and Bureau of Indian Affairs Investigator Emmett Parker that are also worth a read. They include Cry Dance, Spirit Sickness, Ancient Ones, Sky Woman Falling and Dance of the Thunder Dogs.
In the Dee Laguerre series – High Desert Malice and Deep Valley Malice – protagonist Laguerre is a ranger with the Bureau of Land Management. She is a native of the high desert region of north-central Nevada where her Basque ancestors settled at the turn of the 19th century to raise sheep and mine for gold. Her earthy pedigree and proclivity for profanity and firearms distinguish her from some of our other heroines, but also provide an authentic backdrop for the resource management issues tackled by the author.
In High Desert Malice, Laguerre probes the double murder of a fellow ranger and a BLM botanist in Nevada's sheep country, while dealing with conflicts among the government, cattlemen and sheepherders. Deep Valley Malice delves into the politics of the water wars of the 1920s when the Los Angeles Aqueduct diverted water from the Owens River to quench the thirst of the city's ever-growing population. Laguerre teams up with other law enforcement agencies to discover who is bombing key reservoirs and tunnels of the complex water supply infrastructure. Both books deftly intertwine suspense with well-researched case studies of environmental issues like water resource conflicts, public land management, over-grazing and urban sprawl.
Author: Skye Kathleen Moody
Despite her glitzy name, Moody's heroine – Venus Diamond, an agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service stationed in Seattle – is a diminutive, down-to-earth woman whose passion for endangered species takes her searching for criminals in the rain forests, salt-spray meadows and ocean beaches of the Pacific Northwest. The author weaves tales of murder and intrigue with threads of local customs, Native American lore and empathy for indigenous cultures. Moody has also authored non-fiction pieces — under another pen name, Kathy Kahn – about poor mountain women from the coal-mining region of Appalachia (Hillbilly Women) and some U.S. and Soviet workers' means of making a living in the 1970's (Fruits of Our Labor). Her latest nonfiction work is Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam, a product of her passion for beachcombing. Before turning her talents to novels, Moody was an international journalist and photographer whose assignments took her to China, the former Soviet Union and East Africa.
In Wildcrafters, Venus Diamond combs the rain forest – "where moss-draped old-growth cedar and spruce trees soared to a heavenly canopy of branches and boughs that protected the vine maples and the fragile, fern-carpeted woodlands" – for a baby who vanished from his bassinet at the forest's edge. She must consider not only the superstitions of the local "wildcrafters" who eke out a living poaching and selling native plants to herbalists, but the possibility that the baby's disappearance was somehow connected to elk poaching in the area.
Blue Poppy sees Diamond investigating multiple murders in a nationally protected meadow leased by a perfume maker to grow a non-native Tibetan blue poppy, a key ingredient of their world-famous fragrance. The twists and turns of the investigation include a chef found face-down in his kitchen poisoned by a deadly camas root, an exotic model murdered among the blue poppies she hoped would make her famous, and a lepidopterist shot dead among the same blue poppies, with the dust of an extinct butterfly on his fingertips.
Moody's other books span the unlikely realms of eco-terrorism on the Columbia River, sea creatures in Seattle's harbor, diamond mining in Canada and rare animal embryo cloning. Choose any one and settle in for an exciting, twisting, page-turner.
Author: Nevada Barr
Nevada Barr writes, "National parks are the home of our history, dyed in our blood, warmed by our hopes, inspired by our accomplishments. Memories of who we were, knowledge of who we are, and dreams of who we can hope to become." Barr should know. She was born in Yerington, Nev. and raised on a mountain airport in the Sierras. She went on to study speech and drama in New York and Minneapolis but spent summers working in the National Parks from Michigan to Mississippi. Barr's first park ranger job was boat patrol on Isle Royale National Park. "After that summer I was hooked," she writes, and she began a mystery series featuring the tough talking National Parks Service ranger Anna Pigeon.
The first book in the series, Track of the Cat (1993), takes place at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. A ranger's body has seemingly been pawed to death by a lion, but Anna Pigeon soon discovers she has fallen prey to foul play. Track of the Cat was well received and A Superior Death, loosely based on Barr's experiences as a boat patrol ranger on Lake Superior, was published in 1994. In this novel, a diver finds more than was bargained for in a sunken ship.
Barr has been a prolific writer ever since. Jump ahead to 2005, when she released the 13th book in the Anna Pigeon series, Hard Truth, which is set in Rocky Mountain National Park. The novel finds Anna moving to Colorado just three days after her wedding. Instead of a honeymoon she finds herself paired a wheelchair-bound paraplegic and elderly aunt in the middle of a mystery of three girls who disappeared on a cult-like religious retreat.
Author: Victoria Houston
Victoria Houston's hometown is Rhinelander, and the local fishing culture is a backdrop that runs throughout her Loon Lake series featuring retired dentist and avid fisherman, Doctor Osborne, and his love interest and local fly-fishing police chief Lewellyn Ferris.
A favorite in the series, Dead Madonna, begins when a young woman's body is found beneath a party pontoon boat on a popular northern Wisconsin lake. On the same day, a prominent widow is found beaten to death in her home. Lew is caught short-handed and deputizes Doc to help her with the investigation. Fishing aside, there's nothing Doc likes better than helping Lew. The pair is joined in their efforts to untangle the murders by walleye-tracker and jokester Ray Pradt.
It's ice fishing season when Houston takes us to Loon Lake in her 2004 novel, Dead Hot Mama. Doc is back trying to convince Lew to give ice fishing a chance, but his efforts are derailed when the bodies of two snowmobilers are pulled out of Two Sisters Lake and a woman's body turns up in a snowdrift. Lew and the Doc once again team up to get to the bottom of a very murky mystery. Eccentrics are welcome and Ray is back to help.
Lew pursues justice as Doc and Ray remain charmers in Houston's 2005 mystery, Dead Jitterbug. Ray's newest idea is a seminar called "Fishing for Girls." Doc agrees to help with the project but is pulled away to help Lew after the mother of one of Ray's "seminar girls" (the author of a syndicated advice column), is found dead in her home. Doc and Lew then discover that another of Ray's "seminar girls'" parents lived in Loon Lake but were brutally murdered 27 years ago. A local attorney asks Lew to renew the murder investigation since the lawyer believes the person convicted was framed and the murderer is still in town. Lew has her hands full with her run for Lake County sheriff, a counterfeit money scam and a cold case murder.
Author: John Galligan
Ned "the Dog" Oglivie is Madison author John Galligan's fly-fishing and wound-licking protagonist in his three-part murder mystery series. The Dog lives the philosophy: when the going gets tough, the tough go fishing. And the Dog is tough. A self-described "trout hound," he has checked out of life, gone fishing for three years traveling in his 1984 Cruise Master RV and is tackling his loneliness with vodka-tinged Tang.
The Nail Knot (2003), Galligan's first novel in the Dog-centered series, is set on the revered Wisconsin water, Black Earth Creek. Here, the farm community clashes with environmentalists, and small town law enforcement is a joke. Getting to the bottom of a fly-fisherman's death proves to be almost as elusive as the Dog's quest to fish the yellow sally stonefly hatch. "How did you get called Dog?" asks Junior, a farm girl, and Dog's romantic interest in the novel. "Grade school, I told her. It came from my real name. But lately I'd embraced it. Accepted it. Become the Dog – and then gone feral."
Galligan's second novel in the series, The Blood Knot (2005) finds the Dog in Avalanche in the heart of Wisconsin's Amish country at a time when a controversial artist is found dead in a local trout stream. The murder is pinned on a boy named Deuce and the Dog, fumbling about on a bad leg after being attacked by a beaver, sets out to prove the boy's innocence. Local characters are rough and strung out on meth.
The third in the series, The Clinch Knot, finds the Dog putting more miles on his RV and fishing the Roam River in Livingston, Mont. During his trip, a troubled local girl, Jesse Ringer, is killed and the murder is pinned on her boyfriend, D'Ontario Sneed, who is unable to defend himself after he is found nearly dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Dog investigates a local lawyer, a pair of white supremacists and a local fly-fishing outfitter who employed the suspect and the victim. The ending offers a hint of redemption for the Dog, who has been trying to avoid society while coming to grips with his failed marriage and the drowning death of his only child.
Author: Sara Rath
Midlife meets murder in Wisconsin writer Sara Rath's novel, Star Lake Saloon and Housekeeping Cottages (2005). The mystery follows the midlife detour of Hannah Swann who is trying to save a run-down fishing resort from an international mining corporation in Wisconsin's Northwoods. Hannah's uncle willed her the crumbling resort on remote Star Lake, and she puts teaching and her affair with a married man behind her, rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Along the way, she bonds with folksy barmaid Ginger and fishing guide Dan Kerry. In the end, Dan helps Hannah fight the mining company and find a common ground with her activist adult daughter.
Author: Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn brings Lauren Maxwell, widow, single mother of two, environmentalist and a Wild America Society investigator, to life. Lauren is stationed in Anchorage, Alaska and the arctic landscape provides the perfect backdrop for this feisty woman.
Murder Most Grizzly (1993), takes the reader deep into bear country. Eccentric biologist and bear defender Roland Taft seems to have been killed by a bear. But Lauren thinks there is more to the story. Roland's remains were found at the scene along with a gun. But Roland never carried a gun in bear country. Lauren begins her hunt for the real killer and finds there is more going on in Alaska's McNeil River Sanctuary than bears fishing for salmon. Packing a .45 caliber Colt automatic, Lauren suspects the park's good looking pro-hunting administrator of foul play and having a dirty hand in big oil interests. In between she and her son seek to return a wolf pup to its mom. By the end, Lauren gets a surprise when she is attacked by the real killer and it's the grizzly that gets revenge.
A Wolf in Death's Clothing (1995) sends Lauren on the trail of another killer after her friend, Belle Doyon, a native Koyukon Athabascan is gunned down in her own doorway. The book provides a heavy dose of archeology along with mystery. The village is split over big oil business. Lauren and her son Jake follow Belle's grandmother to the family fish camp in the bush for the summer. Lauren starts to investigate each potential suspect in Belle's shooting and winds up being targeted herself.
In Quinn's 1997 Lauren Maxwell mystery, Killer Whale, our protagonist's investigation takes her from the island's carved totems and the Haida people to the deep ocean, looking for evidence. The setting is dramatic. Haida culture is central to the story. It seems that being a friend of Lauren Maxwell is dangerous – dangerous enough to get you killed. Lauren clashes with French biologist Raoul D'Onofre when her friend Sam Larrabee turns up dead.
Kathryn A. Kahler, Natasha Kassulke and David L. Sperling are all Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine staff writers.