If the pen really is mightier than the sword, it seems like environmentalists should have worked themselves out of a job a long time ago. Take a stroll through almost any bookstore, and you’ll find a nature-writing section full of lushly designed covers, beautifully turned prose, and impassioned arguments on behalf of the land. It looks like a slam-dunk for Team Green.
But wander a few aisles over, to the paperback fiction shelves, and you’ll see why the battle of the book isn’t over yet. Here, where the covers are dominated by buxom women, fearsome weapons, and billboard-size type, right-wing politics rule the roost. This, alas, is where you also find the giant bestsellers and record publishing deals — the stuff that really gets read. Luckily, environmentalists do have a few friends in the world of the trade paperback, and they’ve created some heroines and heroes who crusade for truth, justice, and Mother Earth.
For instance: Meet Anna Pigeon, itinerant National Park Service ranger and crime-fighter extraordinaire. Hunting Season, just published this year, is the 10th Pigeon mystery from author Nevada Barr. Pigeon has already pursued evildoers in several parks, including Mesa Verde, Carlsbad Caverns, Isle Royale, and Lassen Volcanic; Hunting Season is the second Pigeon novel set on the historic Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. This time around, a local man’s body turns up in one of the park buildings, and Pigeon is, of course, immediately on the case.
It’s easy to see why the Pigeon books frequently make the New York Times bestseller list. Hunting Season has all the elements of a good mystery: a fast pace, a tough, likeable heroine, a little sexual tension, and a satisfying set of clues. It also sketches a reasonably realistic picture of life in the National Park Service. Okay, so most rangers don’t deal with murders on a regular basis, but lots of them do have to wear dorky uniforms, put up with annoying coworkers, and get territorial about their office chairs. Anna Pigeon works in the details of daily life in the park service without interrupting the flow of the story, and by the end you’ve not only had a good time, you’ve also learned quite a bit about her profession. Hunting Season, for example, even goes so far as to clarify who maintains most government vehicles. (If you care, it’s a federal agency called the General Services Administration, which leases cars and trucks to the National Park Service.) Pretty substantial stuff for a book that’s usually read on the beach.
Elsewhere in this odd sub-genre of mystery novels, you’ll find Rachel Porter, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent who, like Anna Pigeon, encounters more than her share of murders. A Killing Season, the sixth and latest book in this series by Jessica Speart, takes place mostly on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, where a string of grizzly-bear deaths coincides with a series of mysterious disappearances of tribal members. The book is as fast-moving as Hunting Season, but you have to suspend your skepticism a bit more often. (Do former mobsters really hang onto prescription bottles labeled with their previous aliases?) Porter, our heroine, is also a little less believable than Pigeon. While Pigeon, a good bureaucrat, usually waits for trouble to find her, Porter looks for trouble so enthusiastically that it’s sometimes hard to understand why she still has a job.
But author Speart, like Barr, has done plenty of research, and her book is stuffed with meaty details. If you’re wondering who has jurisdiction over wildlife on the Blackfeet Reservation, or what the Blackfeet language is called, Speart will tell you. Speart even throws in a far-right radio host — a villain, of course — modeled on the real-life Montana hatemonger John Stokes.
Perhaps the most famed author bringing environmental heroics to the mass market is Carl Hiaasen, who started out as a mystery writer but now tends toward frothy pieces of action-adventure farce. His nine bestsellers are all set in Florida, and most have an environmental bent. The no-nonsense heroine of Lucky You wants to save native turtle habitat from an evil strip-mall developer, but first she has to wrest her winning lottery ticket back from some boneheaded white supremacists, a task that leads her and her male sidekick on a chase through the Florida Keys. Hiaasen doesn’t sneak as much good-for-you information into his books as Speart or Barr, but he sure makes environmentalists look fine; the main characters in Lucky You are funny, quick-thinking, and even have good aim. Hiaasen has just published a book for kids, Hoot, which is crowded with similar characters — among them “a renegade eco-avenger, a sinister pancake PR man, and some puny burrowing owls.” Guess who comes out on top.
Thanks to these writers, environmentalists are getting some good publicity in unexpected places. One warning, though: Busy activists with pressing deadlines shouldn’t get near these books, since whoever calls this stuff escapist fiction is dead wrong. The action is so relentless, the cliffhangers so craftily placed, that I felt like I was not so much escaping as signing up for a very pleasant captivity. Once you give in to these books’ easy charm, you’re stuck with them until the very last word.
Get Grist in your inbox