The Natural World in Crime Fiction

Many of the books I enjoy include some aspect of the natural world. An obvious recent example is The Witch Elm by Tana French, which revolves around an old tree in a yard where the main characters played as children and one returns as an adult to recover from an assault. Then there’s my own Below the Tree Line, which is set on a farm in rural Central Massachusetts. Now that I’m writing about a suburban setting, I’m taking a look at my neighborhood for scenes or aspects of nature to include in a traditional mystery. It’s not going as expected.

My first choice was to talk about apple trees, since we have one. However, it hasn’t produced a real crop in a few years, and right now looks like it’s dying. It might work if the book were entitled “Death of an Apple Orchard,” since the tree looks more like a sculpture than something that might have ever produced fruit. Scratch that idea.

The ornamental trees in this area seem to have developed a disease that kills off their leaves, so for the last two years they have looked like they too are dying. No one seems concerned enough to take them down, so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

To this I can add all the invasive species that have killed off our native species, thereby depriving other plants, birds, and animals of expected sustenance. Our own backyard is being overtaken by bittersweet, bamboo, rose of Sharon, and lots more. I’m not sure it’s even possible to get rid of the invasives now. It may be too late. Nature as evil invader. Not my idea of the setting for a cozy.

The other obvious choice for drawing nature into a tale is birds. I love birds, love watching them flit among the shrubs picking up a meal—bugs or seeds—and jabbering at each other. Cardinals are of course always welcomed, along with goldfinches, northern flickers, and egrets, even crows. But the winged creatures I most often see are not nearly as attractive, or as much of a pleasure to watch. Turkeys.

Turkeys are everywhere now.

Last year a flock made its way slowly down our street, passing from yard to yard in search of edibles. When they encountered a fence they headed out to the street. A driver trying to park made the mistake of honking at one of them. This is received as a direct insult, and the turkeys responded accordingly. Two of them attacked the car, pecking and jabbering at it. Not satisfied with this display of temper, they headed out into the street, bringing two lanes of traffic to a halt. This was so disruptive that a neighbor entered the fray shooing away the turkeys to the other side of the road, allowing traffic to flow again. But the turkeys weren’t done yet. They reentered traffic, once again tying it up, until bored, they wandered away, down the center of the road.

Once when a turkey was behaving appropriately, I snapped a pic of it. The click of my iPhone startled the bird and he looked up, scanning the area for whatever creature had threatened him. I moved on.

These feather characters won’t work as background detail for a story, though they might serve as a motive for murder.

Notice I began looking for an apple tree but mine was not attractive, and then moved on to other aspects of nature that were less than serene or beautiful. The cozy mystery needs the apple tree in blossom, but a thriller or suspense story needs the scaly fruit tree. Nature offers us both (and a lot in between) and as writers we choose aspects of the natural world to signal theme, tone, mood. I plan to get those diseased decorative trees into a story very soon. The turkeys are more likely to find their way into a humorous story, perhaps fleeing a homeowner determined to get rid of them. I’ll enjoy writing that one. And then I’ll talk about the rabbits that are now everywhere.

8 thoughts on “The Natural World in Crime Fiction

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. In my mystery Rope Burn, set in contemporary Wyoming cattle country, the prairie land plays not only a critical role in the plot, it becomes a character in and of itself, influencing the human characters that interact with the land.

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  2. Loved this post! Features of the natural world that are distinct to given areas help establish the atmosphere. Where would Robichaux be without the swamps of Louisiana? Thank you!

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    1. Thank you, Vicky. You’re absolutely right about how rich a Louisiana setting can be. I love the books by C.J. Box for the same reason, the setting and what I learn about that part of the country. I could go on but you know what I mean.

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  3. Great post! It is so true! We try to find what will work for our books and stories, and sometimes what we wanted isn’t what works.

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