There’s no pleasure like wading into a new genre to find an unexpected favorite—and right now I have one of my new favorite genres on the brain. When I picked up The River by Peter Heller this spring, its premise brought to mind an adventure article in Outside magazine. I like outdoorsy-ness, sometimes, but until that book, I wouldn’t have called it a favorite topic or setting.
But I am all for an absorbing story, well-told. And with its atmospheric setting and simple-yet-vivid prose, The River turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2019.
Of course the next thing I had to do was read more Peter Heller, which I enjoyed so much I chose it for a Book Club selection. In the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club community, we’re visiting Peter Heller’s backlist with another harrowing wildnerness mystery: Celine. Heller based the titular character on his own mother: she’s an artist and private eye in her late 60s who can navigate New York City and national parks with equal aplomb, and has a knack for tracking down missing persons.
After loving the atmospheric nature settings in The River and Celine, I went in search of other wilderness mystery and suspense novels, and am delighted to share them with you today. Some I’ve read and loved; some are on my TBR. Thankfully, these twenty gripping tales of detectives, park rangers, and hikers are perfect for enjoying indoors, preferably in front of a cozy fireplace.
HSPs, take note: these mysteries are gritty, and some include violence on the page. Although I’m eager to pick up many books on this list, I might avoid reading them before bed.
This heart-pounding literary thriller is perfect for fans of The River by Peter Heller. Mesmerized by the Rocky Mountains, the Courtland family members all have different goals for their wilderness family vacation. Caitlin, soon to begin college, sees the mountain trails as a challenge for her running strength and stamina. Her parents hope to piece together their broken marriage. But when Caitlin and her younger brother Sean go off on a hike together...and only Sean returns, the family nearly falls apart. They deal with Caitlin’s disappearance very separately, yet their unspeakable questions are all the same: what could I have done? When do we give up and stop searching? Johnston captures their fears with precise, vivid details. More info →
Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns in Harper’s standalone follow-up to her bestselling debut The Dry. Alice Russell is Falk’s insider source on a big money-laundering case he’s been working. When Alice disappears during a wilderness expedition with some of the targets of the probe, Falk suspects foul play and rushes to aid in the search. Falk and his teammate soon discover Alice and her respective team members each kept deadly secrets and bore old grudges. If he is to untangle the mystery, he must first untangle the knotted relationships. The setting, Australia's brooding (and fictional) Giralang Ranges, is a character in itself in this intricately-plotted procedural. More info →
This is our November book club pick. Private investigator Celine is a recovering alcoholic with emphysema who specializes in finding missing persons. When a young woman asks Celine to find her missing photographer father, Celine and her partner head to Yellowstone National Park, where it becomes clear someone wants this man to stay missing. Read this for the way Heller writes about nature and explores the intersection of family, privilege, and the secrets we keep. More info →
This series was enthusiastically recommended for readers who've run out of Louise Penny novels. After reading the first book, I understand why. After losing his job and separating from his family in a marital dispute, Cork O’Connor can barely crawl out from under his guilt. Cork is eager to win back his family—winter in Minnesota lake country is hard enough without bitterness and loss. But when a local judge is murdered, and a friend asks Cork to find her missing son, he takes on the investigation. Town officials try to stop him at every turn, but Cork is determined to find the truth, even if that means exposing a dark secret. Part Irish, part Anishinaabe, Cork straddles two worlds and calls on friends who owe him favors in order to solve the case. More info →
Helena Pelletier loved learning from her survivalist father in the marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but she keeps her childhood a secret. Not even Helena’s loving husband knows about her past, and she hopes to keep it that way. Helena’s father kidnapped her mother and kept her in a remote cabin. After two years of captivity, Helena was born. Now, with daughter of her own and a new life, Helena can sleep at night knowing her father is in prison...until he kills two guards and escapes into the wilderness. With the manhunt underway, Helena knows the police underestimate her father’s capabilities. And the only one who can find him is his own daughter. More info →
The Anna Pigeon series is built on a fascinating concept: each mystery is set in a different national park. In book one, Anna runs from her past and moves from New York to the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas to be a park ranger. When her fellow ranger and friend Sheila is killed by a mountain lion, Anna notices some discrepancies. The claw marks and paw prints are too perfect, and Anna suspects foul play. Anna treks the land to find the real killer. The author was a park ranger herself, and her experience is evident on the page. More info →
At fourteen, Ted Systead faced a camper's worst nightmare: his father was viciously attacked by a grizzly bear. At thirty-four, Ted serves as a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior. When he gets called back to Glacier National Park for a case that eerily resembles his father’s death, he must sort through his own trauma in addition to the murky details of the case. Stubborn townspeople and a powerful beast complicate his investigation as Ted treks deeper and deeper into the wilderness. More info →
Sixteen years ago, Clyde Barr left the beautiful Colorado landscape for the adventure of a lifetime. Since then, he's travelled around the world as a hunter, mercenary, and convict. Now he's back home, but the past still haunts him. While camping, Clyde gets a frantic phone call from his sister, Jen. The line goes dead before he gets her location, sending him into rescue-mode. Along with his sidekick Allie, Clyde will stop at nothing to save his sister. More info →
Amy Raye Latour relishes time alone in the wilderness, but danger sneaks up on the thrill-seeking mother of two. When Amy goes missing, Ranger Pru Hathaway responds to the call with her trusty canine. After a snowfall and several dead ends, the rescue party turns into a search party, looking for Amy's body. But Pru refuses to give up. As she learns more about the tough, savvy Amy, Pru becomes more and more convinced that she is still alive. This fast-paced survival thriller goes back and forth between the two women’s perspectives as both race against time and the elements. More info →
When Winifred Allen's best friends suggest a wilderness adventure in Maine for their annual girls' trip, she reluctantly agrees. Swimming in depression and grief, Wini could really go for more of a beach vacation. But hiking and rafting through the Allagash Wilderness proves to be revitalizing...until their trip takes a treacherous turn. After a freak accident, Wini and her friends are stranded and forced to rely on strangers for supplies and shelter. Just when the women think they're safe, the battle for survival really begins, and Wini must prove her strength. More info →
"Nobody makes an emotional bulletproof vest, so you just have to carry the shrapnel around with you." This is one of many quotes from the rough-and-tumble Walt Longmire. When Cody Pritchard is found dead, Longmire suspects a crime of vengeance and gets wrapped up in one of the most complex cases of his career. Longmire is a sharp-shooting, straightforward sheriff of yesteryear, but the crimes in this series are thoroughly modern and timely enough to warrant a Netflix adaptation of the same name. More info →
Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is new in town, and his strict take-no-bribes policy doesn't exactly make him popular. When a local hunting outfitter is found dead on his woodpile, Joe suspects it's personal. After two more "outfitter murders" are solved, Joe digs deeper, unsatisfied with the local police department's statement. He soon discovers an endangered creature living in his woodpile, presumably left by the murdered outfitter, and knows that if the news caught wind of it, a national gas company would have no chance of building their pipeline across Wyoming. Danger increases with every step Joe takes in his investigation as pieces together details from the murders, the creature, and the gas company. More info →
Told over the course of one year on the Kamchatka peninsula, this character-driven novel takes us to "places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas." When two sisters, ages eight and eleven, go missing on the shoreline of northeast Russia, their tight-knit community is deeply affected. The reader gets to see how each character is impacted: everyone from the neighbor, to the detective, to the mother. And in this isolated region, we see how a community can come together or fall apart in the midst of fear and crisis. More info →
Wildlife Biologist Summer "Sam" Weston has one goal: saving the cougars. When a young boy goes missing on a Utah campground, she must save him and her beloved big cats. When the news breaks, the media quickly blames Sam's recently rehabilitated cougars. In order to rescue her life’s work, the cats, and the boy, Sam works with FBI Agent Chase Perez. As they traverse rocky canyons in search of evidence and the boy, the media continues to stoke fear around the cougars, putting Sam’s reputation at risk. More info →
When his father becomes the prime suspect in a murder case, game warden Mike Bowditch aims to clear his name. Startled by a mysterious voicemail on his answering machine and motivated to find out why his father is on the run, Mike teams up with a retired warden pilot. While trekking across the Maine wilderness, he realizes that he must hunt down the true killer - before the brutal man finds him first. More info →
On the run from drug cartels in Arizona, Rich Moore flees to an Appalachian forest preserve. Tracking wildlife and building cabins among the quiet trees suits him, but solitude doesn’t last forever. After finding several killed bears on the preserve, Rich becomes obsessed with catching the poachers but receives little help from locals or the law. Instead, he partners up with a scientist to put his risky plan in action. This beautifully written slow-burn is sure to stick with you (much like The River by Peter Heller, which is still on my mind). More info →
Detective Macy Greely returns to the tough, unwelcoming small town of Collier, Montana to dig up old files and reconcile them with a new case. The victim: Grace Adams, a young woman who heard incessant knocking on her door. After peeking out her window to find a woman wandering the trails behind her house, Grace emerged to help--only to be stabbed once and left for dead in the snow. As she hunts for a killer, Macy needs to figure out how Grace figures into the bigger picture. Subsequent novels in this series follow both Macy and Grace as they solve new mysteries and grapple with the past. More info →
Five days after Eileen's disappearance in the Ashlough forest of Australia, her camera washes up on the riverbank. Unhappy with police efforts, her brother Chris gathers his friends to form a search party. They look for signs of Eileen, straying farther from the hiking trails, and closer to danger. Twists and turns make this thriller unputdownable, but Coates is known for her horror writing, so this one is not for the squeamish or faint-of-heart. More info →
Adventurous honeymooners Natalie and Doug embark on a wilderness getaway to start their lives together, apart from the distractions of civilization. Isolated in the Adirondack mountains, the couple explores their relationship and the surrounding woods. But they soon realize that someone is watching them. When romance dims and survival takes over, will Natalie and Doug stay together? More importantly, will they make it out of the forest alive? More info →
Fighting the bad guys is more than just a job to policewoman Indiana O'Meara. Every day is a chance to redeem her past, so when she learns that girls are going missing on a cattle farm in Tasmania, she jumps at the chance to go undercover. The Calico Mountain Lodge is full of mystery, especially where the strange owner is concerned. The deeper she digs into the secrets of the lodge, the closer Indy gets to danger. If you like your mysteries with a bit of romance, pick this one up. More info →
What wilderness mysteries have you read and loved? Which are still on your TBR? Tell us all about it in the comments section!