Mysterious Wilderness

Volume 13, No. 2, Summer 1997

Mysterious Wilderness


  • Wild Places, Wild Ideals by Roberta Ann Henrich
  • The Detective Who Came from the Cold: The First Kate Shugak Mysteries by Nicole Décuré
  • The Six Senses of the Wilderness by Dawn Weiss
  • The Altar of the Northern Wilds by Joyce Christmas
  • Pursuit in the Wilderness by Jim Doherty
  • Props of Civilization—Christine Andreae’s City Slickers in the Mysterious Wilderness by E. D. Schafer
  • The Wilderness in British Crime Fiction by Philip Scowcroft


  • The Wilderness See-Saw by Sarah Andrews
  • Florida’s Swamp Wilderness: Dank, Dark, Creepy and Indispensable by E. C. Ayres
  • A Locked Room in the Heart of Africa by Michael Bowen
  • Wilderness Starts at the Edge of Town by Steve Brewer
  • The Writer’s Wilderness by Sandy Dengler
  • End of Fall by Jere French
  • The Mysterious Wilderness Within by Sue Henry
  • Skeleton Canyon Then and Now by J. A. Jance
  • La Frontera by Allana Martin
  • In the Maine Woods by Stefanie Matteson
  • It’s a Wilderness… What Can Happen? by Lise McClendon
  • Wild Child by Elizabeth Quinn
  • Why I Write Wilderness by Dana Stabenow
  • The Forest Prime Evil by Alan Russell


  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Carol Harper, Harriet Klausner, Gerry Letteney, and Vicki Nesting
  • A Mystery Reader Abroad: Fei-ji-chang zai nar? by Carol Harper
  • Just Juveniles: Dirty Deeds by Nancy Roberts
  • In Short: The Mysterious Wilderness by Marvin Lachman
  • Mystery Bookstores by Janet A. Rudolph
  • MRI Mayhem by Janet A. Rudolph
  • Letters to the Editor

Wild Child
by Elizabeth Quinn (Grants Pass, Oregon)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” John Muir’s sentiment has been shared by many Americans since the European conquest, including fictional characters from Natty Bumppo to my own Lauren Maxwell. To some degree characters are stand-ins for their authors, made up not out of whole cloth but imagined from inside the author’s own psyche. And sometimes the words those characters say, the attitudes they manifest, the actions they take and the thoughts they think actually astound their creator—”I didn’t know I thought that!” Which is exactly what happened to me when I created Lauren Maxwell and set her loose in the mysterious wilderness.

Not that I should have been surprised when Lauren proved to be a passionate advocate for wild places and wild things. After all, I grew up with the wild, spending my earliest summers in the cool, fern-screened hemlock and conifer forests of New York’s Adirondack mountains, darting down paths cushioned by fragrant needles and dolphining in waters that mirrored fleecy clouds against a robin’s egg sky. Natty Bumppo knew that forest and those waters.

In adolescence, spring and autumn weekends and glorious summers were spent in the sun-dappled glades of the Finger Lakes, where maples and birches added pale green lace to the springtime woods and vivid splotches of gold and red to the autumn forest. The original inhabitants of the area were wiped out in Natty Bumppo’s time, but their name lives on in the lake, Canandaigua, and in the legend of the monster which lurks in the deepest water.

In adulthood, my path took me to wilds of a different sort far from the trails trod by Hawkeye and Uncas, first the salt-sprayed dunes and bogs of Cape Cod and Nantucket and finally the river-creased mountains and forests of Oregon. Not long after I moved west, a new friend remarked, “Living here must be a big change for a city girl like you.” I startled us both by blurting out, “I’ve never been a city girl.” Which was the truth, but one I’d not recognized until that moment. While I had long inhabited cities, I actually lived in the wild. And so does my sleuth. Lauren Maxwell is a wildlife biologist who lives in the largest remnant of wilderness in North America and does her damnedest to preserve and protect the wild places and wild things of Alaska.

In her first outing, Murder Most Grizzly (Pocket, 1993), as she stands on a deserted beach on Kamishak Bay and watches a humpback whale breach again and again, Lauren declares her credo:

In my world there is a place in the sea for whales and a place on the land for grizzlies. For I know with dead certainty that if there is no room on this earth for the wild, then there is no place on this planet for me.

And she explains the special lure and danger of Alaska’s mysterious wilderness:

Indigo oceans, lavender mountains, turquoise skies — that’s Alaska. A vast immensity of beauty that’s home to plenty of beasts as well—the cold, the dark, not to mention the bears. Awesome beauties and merciless beasts. My kind of fairy tale.

The wilderness adds to life dimensions of danger as random and deadly as the violence found on mean urban streets, but those who are at risk are far from easy rescue. In Murder Most Grizzly, Lauren is certain that the mauling death of a bear biologist is actually murder, and in the course of her investigation she comes face-to-face with a very angry specimen of Ursus arctis horribilis:

The [grizzly] whoofed and then whoofed again. When Belle stopped, so did I, braced for the attack and ready to drop. Fetal position. On your side. Hand behind neck. What good would it do? Didn’t you see those teeth? Can’t you see those claws?

The deadliest beast on the planet is man, and in the wilderness, Lauren must face that threat as well. In Murder Most Grizzly, the human threat comes from the air, catching her in the open at the McNeil River Wildlife Sanctuary, with no means of escape beyond a thicket:

Now a zipper of rifle shots chased us, tossing up chunks of grass and soil. I headed for the poplars. CRACK-CRACK-CRACK… I bellied forward, angling to the right for a thick fence of saplings, fear bittering my mouth. My God, [he] had killed Roland! And he was ready to kill again.

Beasts aren’t the only danger posed to wilderness mysterians. Far from man-made shelter, even those who have plenty of wildwood wisdom can find themselves stalked by the silent killer hypothermia. In Lauren’s second adventure, A Wolf In Death’s Clothing (Pocket, 1995), she brings her young son to the summer fish camp of an Athabascan elder whose grand-daughter has been shot and left for dead on her own doorstep and must slip with him beneath the icy water of the Yukon River in hopes of eluding a sniper:

Cold. So cold. The extremities went first. The toes seized up, immovable. The feet grew dense and heavy, like rocks. The hands grew hollow and brittle, like glass. Except where my fingers twined with Jake’s fingers. His touch became my focal point. As our world withered away, the touch of Jake’s hand became my still point at the center of the universe.

A mishap on the trail can have potentially deadly consequences. In Lauren’s third outing, Lamb To The Slaughter (Pocket, 1996), set at a conference staged in the shadow of magnificent Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, she takes time out from her investigation of the murder of an Russian botanist to organize a hike to a newly-formed lake, leading a group of eminent scientists to an overlook on the lip of a steep ravine, where one takes a nasty tumble:

She lay across the hill in a fetal curl, head slightly lower on the slope, a good position for combating the inevitable shock. Blood oozed from a nasty scrape on her forehead, trickling onto the parsley fern matted under her head. Dust dulled the brightness of her hair, and twigs adorned her crooked French braid. The violence of her fall had shredded the palms of hands now limp against the hill and bloodied the bruised knees which poked through torn pants.

Even when a wilderness rescue seems at hand, the complex confluence of extremes of weather, landscape, technology and endurance can push deliverance just out of reach. In Lauren’s latest appearance, Killer Whale (Pocket, 1997), her job takes her to the mist-shrouded islands of the Alexander Archipelago, where a global gathering of environmentalists prepare to do battle with scientists determined to capture 12 specimen whales. The confrontation turns deadly when the nephew of Lauren’s close friend is found floating in Cordova Bay, and she later battles her own exhaustion and the relentless battering of the sea to escape a cunning killer:

One foot after the other, hand over hand, I inched my way up that net. Somewhere below, [the killer] howled with fury… Somewhere above, another man shouted my name, but I ignored him, too. The breeze nudged against me, and maintaining my foothold required all of my concentration. So I looked straight ahead, focusing on the gleaming white steel of Le Mistral’s hull, gratified each time a neat line of rivets hove into view, wondering when I would reach the first line of port holes? Surely I’d climbed that far by now? Then the net slipped and me with it. My feet slid off their toeholds, dangling free in the air.

Although my path through life has carried me and my sleuth Lauren Maxwell far beyond the wild Eastern places inhabited by Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, somewhere deep down the impulses that send us into the wilderness are the same. Some scholars claim Cooper’s frontiersman is the archetype from which the contemporary American mystery hero evolved, and certainly the lure of the wild is an enduring American theme. In the mysterious wilderness can be found all the usual suspects of the genre—interesting sleuths, vivid villains, convoluted plots and heinous crimes—and more. The dangerous beasts, extremes of weather, remoteness from rescue and survival dependent in large part on simple good luck add hefty measures of suspense and tension to the mysterious wilderness and provide plenty of opportunity for action.

Lauren likes action, and so do I. While I don’t carry a .45 caliber Colt automatic or make a habit of tracking down killers, I do test myself in the wild by rafting whitewater rivers, biking and hiking remote trails, skiing extreme slopes and pitching my tent far from car campgrounds. And though I didn’t need Lauren Maxwell’s help to learn that I lived in the wild—my friend helped with that — she did help me to understand why:

I didn’t really understand [my late husband’s] need to push life to the farthest edge, to lean over that precipice and risk it all… But recently two things happened that changed all that… After those incidents, the air smelled sweeter, the sun shone brighter, my heart beat stronger, and I finally understood…

John Muir and Natty Bumppo understood the lure of the mysterious wilderness, and thanks to my sleuth Lauren Maxwell, so do I.

Why I Write Wilderness
by Dana Stabenow (Anchorage, Alaska)

Well, of course the easy answer is: I was born in one.

I was. I was born in the Territory of Alaska eight years before it became a state, and I was raised in Cordova, Seldovia, and for five years on a 75-foot fish tender named the Celtic.

For those of you who think it’s romantic to spend one’s formative years traversing the Gulf of Alaska on a boat, let me tell you, they don’t call her the Mother of Storms for nothing. She’s mad, bad and dangerous to know. I remember coming around Port Dick one February in the middle of a storm, lying on my stateroom bunk, looking out the porthole as the boat rolled from one side to the other. One second the view through the porthole would be all water, the next all dark cloud and driving sleet. I thought we were headed for the bottom of the ocean. I’m still kind of surprised to have survived.

When people ask about Kate’s experiences on board the Avilda in Dead in the Water (Berkley, 1993), I can say with perfect truth, “Yes, I have been that seasick.”

We lived a subsistence lifestyle in those days, which meant if we didn’t get our moose every fall, we didn’t eat meat that winter. People seem to regard a subsistence lifestyle as romantic, too. It isn’t. It is work, dull, back-breaking, never-ending work. I remember reading an interview with an Inupiaq elder once, who said that whatever the problems the villages have now, at least everybody’s got enough to eat. We didn’t always then, and in retrospect it seems that life was one long struggle to keep the pantry filled.

A moose hunt in those days started with a boat ride across lower Cook Inlet to Kamishak Bay. We’d anchor offshore and take the skiff in, beaching it above the high water mark so it wouldn’t float away on the incoming tide while we were bushwhacking through the woods.

Bushwhacking is exactly what it sounds like: whacking your way through very dense undergrowth. Moose like standing in shallow lakes and nibbling off the branches that line the water’s edge, so that’s where you go to hunt one. The journey is not lightened by the knowledge that when you get your moose, you have to pack him out again, in pieces, through the same brush you have just bushwhacked in through, and that before you can pack him out you have to skin, gut and quarter him surrounded by a cloud of thirsty mosquitoes. When I was little, my hands and eyes would swell shut from the bites. Alaskan mosquitoes sneer at Cutter’s.

One year of glorious memory we got our moose right on the beach. Mom brought him down with one shot right behind his ear, a nice, fat bull. We rolled him down to the water’s edge, skinned him and then gutted and quartered him on his own skin and lifted the quarters straight into the skiff. No bushwhacking necessary. If we’d had any, we’d have broken out the champagne.

We ate the tongue, the liver and the heart first, and let the rest of the meat hang from the boom for a day or so. Then we got out butcher paper and masking tape and Marks-A-Lots and cut and wrapped and cut and wrapped and cut and wrapped. A moose is a big animal; cutting and wrapping could take two to three days. When we were done we could have as much as 400 pounds of meat in the freezer. We had moose steaks, moose roasts, moose ribs, moose soup bones. There was the ever popular mooseburger, which yours truly got to hand grind (no electric grinders in those days) from all the scraps generated from creating the other cuts.

My mother could do anything with moosemeat, and did. I remember a moosemeat salad she made, chopped celery, chopped sweet pickles, mayo and ground moosemeat. The first sandwich was wonderful, the fifth okay, but by the tenth you wondered if that jar in the refrigerator was ever going to empty out.

Whenever anybody asks me, I can reply with perfect truth, “Yes, I have stood in moose blood up to my eyebrows the way Kate did in Blood Will Tell.”

Why do I use the Alaskan wilderness as a background for my books?

Because I was raised in it, and because I knew there had to be an easier, warmer and drier job out there somewhere.

There was.

Writing about it.

The Forest Prime Evil
by Alan Russell (Cardiff by the Sea, California)

I think it might have been David Browder, founder of the Sierra Club, who made the statement, “It’s not wilderness if there’s not something wild out there.”

Something wild. A grizzly. A cougar. A rattlesnake.

A murderer.

In my novels I have placed the mysterious wilderness in some unusual places: a resort hotel; a southern California park with a stand of chaparral; a cracked mind. But one book comes to the fore: The Forest Prime Evil (Walker, 1992).

Like many authors, I didn’t have a full blueprint for my novel at the start of the process, so I decided to take a vacation in the redwoods. For those of you who haven’t experienced the redwoods, do it. If you want to feel young, if you want to feel awe, look up at those giants. We’ve got Tolkien’s Ents right here on earth.

I love the “out and about” research part of writing a book. Most authors are incredibly nosy. Our occupation gives us a chance to ask questions. So I went around and asked questions, hitting such towns as Garberville and Ferndale and Scotia. It was an excuse to go everywhere from logging towns to funky restaurants and bars (where research dictated I tilt back a beer or two). I went to some small town newspapers, and studied back issues of the papers. I struck up conversations over breakfast in restaurants. I took the tours, and I read the informational books, and like the subject I was writing on, the novel began to take “root.”

When it comes to redwoods, falling branches take on a whole new meaning. The droppings of these giants, some 300 feet high (a football field, mind you), become projectiles. The locals have a term for these falling branches: widow-makers. The term is well earned. Over the centuries, more than a few people have been impaled and killed by those falling branches. And for me those widow-makers became my manna from heaven. The whole time I had known the novel would revolve around the death of this famous tree-planter, a man known as the Green Man. So I had the vehicle I needed. I placed him in the middle of a contested old-growth forest, skewered by a widow-maker. And so the question became, did it fall naturally, or was it planted?

At the time I was writing the book, Redwood Summer was taking place, with activists tree-sitting and even monkey wrenching. Each side was drawing their line with swords (or more appropriately, axes). Finding vying camps and controversies wasn’t the problem. My research had yielded over a hundred pages of typed single spaced notes; I didn’t have a lack of information, but a surfeit of it. There were so many themes, and so much history I wanted to address, but I knew the story had to come first. I think books fail when authors resort to the “sore thumb” syndrome (i.e. they hold up their thumb and say, “See what I know!”). It’s the job of the author to weave in facts, to toss them into the river of the story instead of placing them there as dams.

And so I endeavored to do that, offering historical tidbits, and Longfellow’s Evangeline, and the story of the mythical Green Man (as well as his slightly bent modern counter-part). I talked about Johnny Appleseed, and Julius Sterling Morton, and Richard St. Barbe Baker, and mused on The Man Who Planted Trees. And, yes, I even quoted George Pope Morris (“Woodman, spare that tree! Touch not a single bough! In youth it sheltered me, And I’ll protect it now.”). But all of those were just atmosphere to the mystery of the Green Man’s death.

And my protagonist Stuart Winter? I put him in a very troubled Brobdingnag that had, as I noted, “about as much middle ground as the abortion issue.” I didn’t want easy answers in the book, didn’t want one side to be “good,” and the other to be “evil.” My conservationist “prejudices” were limited to a few sections of musing and the majesty of the woods. As Steinbeck wrote in his Travels With Charley:

The vainest, most slap happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect. Respect—that’s the word.

When redwoods are felled you can count their rings and gauge their age (the oldest, cut down in 1932, was believed to be 2200 years old). But humans can’t be gauged in the same way, and Stuart Winter encounters plenty of twists in trying to ferret out “the root of all evil.” Books always bring back certain memories. Most of those associated with The Forest Prime Evil are pleasant, especially my tromping around amongst the redwoods, and exploring goosepens (so-called because settlers used to keep their geese in the hollows of redwoods—hollows that can be as large as a typical living room), and getting excited about writing a compelling tale of the woods. One bad memory, though, is that after I turned in the book I asked my agent and editor for another six weeks. They didn’t understand why. Both were very pleased with the book. But I insisted, saying, “The murderer couldn’t have done it.” Of course the murderer could have done it, they told me. You proved it conclusively. To which I said, “No. I’ve come to know the characters, and ‘X’ (I won’t name the name) couldn’t have done it. It’s not in his makeup. But ‘Y’ could have.”

They thought I was crazy, but they gave me the extra six weeks. And I’m so glad I insisted on making those changes (and almost killing myself with 20 hour days in the process). If a book has my name on it, I want that to be better than the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

The Forest Prime Evil didn’t do as well in sales as I hoped. The reviews were wonderful, but I think mystery readers were fearful that it was an “environmental novel.” Maybe I should have gone around in a sandwich board that read: THIS IS A CLASSIC WHODUNIT. Still, I’m convinced the didactic elements only added to the read.

Personally, I thought I was a little too hard on the conservationists, but I was gratified when Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, sent me a letter saying how much he liked the book. I also received a letter from a woman in Nebraska who said that prior to reading my book she thought all environmentalists were “yahoos,” but that my book had opened her eyes to see differently. So the book was a success in ways that are sometimes hard to measure. And like my protagonist, I planted a few redwood seedlings when I finished the novel. I hope they’ve grown tall now. I hope true life paralleled the ending of my novel:

“It was like Jack and the beanstalk time,” I said. “If I didn’t know any better, I would swear those redwoods grew as I watched.”

“Beware of giants,” she said.

Or giant killers, I thought.

“My tree is going to grow and grow,” Miss Tuntland predicted.

“And so is mine.”

“Race you to the stars.”

“You’re on.”