Pssst. Have you heard? There’s a new mystery in town. Yeah, detectives are on the case but they’re not cops. The killer is all-too-human. The victim, or at least one of them, is not.
Whether it is the continual thrum from evidence that global warming is a real thing, or news of environmental disasters, or because it’s just time to consider that humans aren’t actually the centre of the universe, the point is, eco-mysteries are emerging as something as binge-worthy as the usual kind.
The earliest adopters will cry out that “new” is a bit of a stretch, maybe even an outright lie. Evidence shows that the clues regarding the genre emerged a while ago – something called the Mystery Readers Journal had an “eco-mysteries” cover story in 2013, and Flashlight Worthy Books has a recommended reading list with books that date back even earlier, to 2004. These sources are pretty under-cover, and so allow us to make our case.
Eco-mysteries or environmental mysteries are gaining momentum.
Landing on the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers Prize shortlist this year is Full Curl, by Dave Butler, labeled as the first in what will be a series centering on Jenny Willson, a hard-edged and caustic warden from Banff National Park. When her park is threatened, she takes it very personally.
And she considers poachers and ladder-climbing bureaucrats equally repulsive and worthy of the same painful fate. When Willson discovers animals disappearing from Canada’s mountain parks, she begins a complex investigation that follows a trail of deceit, distraction, and murder.
“Full Curl was very loosely inspired by a situation in which I was involved when I worked as a warden in Banff National Park,” says Butler. “The idea of someone sneaking in to our national parks to shoot trophy animals created huge amounts of anger. I had to write about it.”
Eco-mysteries or environmental mysteries are gaining momentum.
As you can see, and let’s be sure we don’t get lost in a case of mistaken identity here – we are talking about mysteries where the dead is an animal, a species, something precious and not human; the investigators are wardens or trackers or other protectors of the environment. The perp is the usual suspect you’d find in a “regular” mystery, someone driven by a basic instinct (greed, plain old cruelty) and who is marked by ruthlessness. You will only see their crimes as lesser evils if you believe an animal, or the natural world, is less worthy of our respect than a human being.
It is not “nature versus man”, where man must triumph over the weather on the edge of apocalypse; the environment or the non-human is not fanged and frightening or giant and imaginary. Rather, these are books where it is man against nature – a poacher, a torturer, a killer who must be stopped.
“Because I'm a professional biologist and a forester by trade, I came to realize, early on in my writing, that ecological issues we face as a society are a treasure trove of ideas and themes for mysteries/thrillers. It goes beyond wildlife,” says Butler. “More often than not, there's a huge amount of emotion involved in these issues. People take sides, and can be willing to go to what seems like extreme lengths to "win," or at least to persuade folks on the other side that they're right. This can split communities, pitting neighbour against neighbour, family member against family member, friend against friend. It's fertile ground from which to grow protagonists and antagonists, and the many characters who find themselves in between.”
The former journalist David Kendall has written a number of ecological thrillers, each taking a different angle, each demonstrating another way human greed and politics make a big mess when messing with Mother Nature.
“Eco-thrillers are based on the assumption that humans are just one species, and that the belief that the human is more valuable than the mouse is simply an assumption made by the human predator,” says Kendall. His initial inspiration to dive deep into this nascent genre was philosophical. “Eco-thrillers recognize that the single all-encompassing threat to humanity is humanity.”
“Eco-thrillers recognize that the single all-encompassing threat to humanity is humanity.”
Further, there is an inherent injustice which provides for some of the basis for drama. “Eco-crimes can generate as much wealth as the illegal drug business, but with penalties that are virtually a mosquito bite,” says Kendall. “The longest prison sentence dealt out to a smuggler in endangered species in the history of Canadian jurisprudence is three months. Yet a single white female gyrfalcon (an Appendix One endangered species on the CITES registry) sells for $100,000 to Saudi falconers.” That insight, or injustice, is the focus of the fast-paced page-turner Endangered.
That gives much fodder for character development – the protectors of wildlife or greenspace do it out of passion and a strong sense of morality.
This new trend has its basis in dystopian literature. Books that explore the near future, when the world is ravaged by climate change, and which raise similar questions about the guilt or innocence of man, whether a man, or humanity as a whole is to blame, has a robust history in fiction; Canadian author Margaret Atwood has long looked at the environment and man’s disruptions of it in her work – Oryx and Crake being a recent entry.
The design and technology website Gizmodo points out that of late, “some of our most talented authors have tackled the challenge of depicting an environmental apocalypse” and calls the trend, eco-fiction or cli-fi. One human has far less to do with the disaster or its repair, these are apocalyptical tales of global chaos, but the effect is the same: it causes us to pause and consider that we as a species are capable of wilful destruction, collectively or individually. The effect of the books is to frame this truth as a moral choice.
Says Butler: “I've discovered that I love exploring the range of perspectives in these issues through fiction. I don't purposely do it to get readers to think about their own opinions. But from reader feed-back, that seems to happen.”
Mysteries often hide bigger truths inside what seems like pure escape literature. It seems the world is ready to explore some new ones.