Murder in the Great Outdoors

Looks beautiful; could be deadly.
I live in Breckenridge, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains and I’m an outdoorsy kind of gal. I enjoy skiing and snowshoeing in the winter and whitewater rafting, hiking, and biking in the summer. As such, I enjoy reading mystery novels that are set in the great outdoors, so when the weather is too blustery and wet outside to play, I can still “escape outside” in the comfort and warmth of my easy chair with a great mystery.

Setting a mystery outdoors, or mostly outdoors, means that in addition to dangers from the killer(s), the sleuth faces danger from Mother Nature herself. Those dangers can come from weather (hurricane, tornado, freezing cold/blizzard, parching heat, forest fires), from the landscape/waterscape (mountainside cliffs or scree slopes, dark caves, whitewater rapids, riptide beach currents) or from the flora and fauna found in the environment (poisonous plants/snakes/spiders; predators such as lions, wolves, or bears). Getting lost is also a common theme, because it can happen so easily away from civilization. These added dangers add excitement and suspense to the read. And the natural world provides heartbreakingly beautiful backdrops to these tales.

My favorite outdoor-oriented mystery series balance natural dangers with man-made ones to create compelling stories. Here are some:

William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series set in northern Minnesota: Cork O’Connor is the former sheriff of Tamarack County and has part Irish and part Ojibwe mixed heritage. For advice on his cases, he tromps through the woods to meet with Ojibwe medicine man Henry Meloux at his remote cabin. Outdoor settings for the books have included Superior National Forest, Iron Lake, Lake Superior, and the Boundary Waters wilderness straddling the border between Minnesota and Canada. The books also venture into remote areas of the Michigan upper peninsula; Thunder Bay, Ontario; and even the Wyoming Rockies. Most take place during winter, so cold weather is a factor in the stories.

Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series set in Alaska: Kate Shugak is a national park ranger and freelance investigator who lives on a 160-acre homestead in a national park in Alaska. She is a native Aleutian, and her sidekick is her dog, Mutt, part wolf-part Siberian husky. Along with her home park, the series has taken Kate to Dutch Harbor and the Bering Sea, Prudhoe Bay and Alaska’s North Slope, the confluence of the Kichatna and the Nakochna Rivers, Grant Glacier, and other places in Alaska.

C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett series set in Wyoming: Joe Pickett is a Wyoming Game and Fish warden who patrols the Bighorn Mountains for errant hunters and fishers. He lives in an imaginary town near Saddlestring, Wyoming, with his assertive wife and daughters, and his confidant and sometime sidekick is Nate Romanowski, a falconer. The books have a Western environmental theme, touching on issues such as endangered species, ecoterrorism, oil/gas drilling, global warming, and survivalists. The series has also taken Joe to Jackson Hole, the Little Snake River Valley, and Yellowstone National Park, among other Wyoming locations.

Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series set in National Parks throughout the United States: Anna Pigeon is a forest ranger with the U.S. National Park Service, as was Nevada Barr before she became a successful author. Each book takes place in a different national park. This is the most well-known series in this subgenre, and Nevada Barr has earned high praise for her vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the national park settings. I have to admit, though, that I like the earlier books much better than the later books in the series, which have plunged into creepy, psychotic topics (sexual abuse, child prostitution, torture, etc.) and have caused Anna to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner, who lives in Salida, Colorado, and patrols the upper Arkansas River. Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs. Please visit her website:

Read all posts by Beth Groundwater for Criminal Element.


  1. Betty Breier

    I have read and enjoyed all those series myself. I also like Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series (Michigan), Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch series (Maine) and the wonderful Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson (Wyoming). All take place in outdoor, or very rural, areas.

  2. Patrick Balester

    Big fan of these writers. I really prefer small town or outdoor mysteries. The settings are great and the challenges to solving crime are so much more than just a reluctant witness in a faceless big city crowd. How do you make Mother Nature co-operate when she doesn’t want to? She doesn’t respond to waterboarding, that’s for sure!

  3. Beth Groundwater

    Thanks for your comments, BLB and Patrick! I, too, am a fan of Craig Johnson’s series. I’ll have to check out Steve Hamilton’s and Paul Doiron’s. Another outdoor-oriented series by a Colorado author that I enjoy is Mark Steven’s Allison Coil hunting guide series. And yes, Patrick, Mother Nature is very capricious and often does the exact opposite of what you–or a character in a novel–wants!

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