20 riveting wilderness mystery and suspense novels

20 riveting wilderness mystery and suspense novels

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. 

I can’t wait to hear more about Peter Heller’s writing—and adventuring—when he joins us for Book Club Tuesday night at 7 pm EST. To join the conversation, sign up for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club Community here, and mark your calendars for this and all our upcoming events

Have you stepped outside of your genre comfort zone lately? I’d love to hear about a book that took you by surprise. Tell us all about it in comments!

Some links (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links. More details here.

Wilderness Novels
Descent: A Novel

Descent: A Novel

Author:
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 →
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Force of Nature

Force of Nature

Author:
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 →
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Celine

Celine

Author:
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 →
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Iron Lake (Cork O’Connor Mystery Series Book 1)

Iron Lake (Cork O’Connor Mystery Series Book 1)

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 →
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The Marsh King’s Daughter

The Marsh King’s Daughter

Author:
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 →
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Track of the Cat (An Anna Pigeon Novel)

Track of the Cat (An Anna Pigeon Novel)

Author:
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 →
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The Wild Inside (Glacier Mystery Series)

The Wild Inside (Glacier Mystery Series)

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 →
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Nothing Short of Dying: A Clyde Barr Novel

Nothing Short of Dying: A Clyde Barr Novel

Author:
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 →
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Breaking Wild

Breaking Wild

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 →
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The River at Night: A Novel

The River at Night: A Novel

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 →
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The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery

The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery

Author:
"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 →
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Open Season (A Joe Pickett Novel)

Open Season (A Joe Pickett Novel)

Author:
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 →
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Disappearing Earth

Disappearing Earth

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 →
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Endangered (Sam Westin Mysteries)

Endangered (Sam Westin Mysteries)

Author:
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 →
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The Poacher’s Son (Mike Bowditch Mysteries)

The Poacher’s Son (Mike Bowditch Mysteries)

Author:
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 →
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Bearskin: A Novel

Bearskin: A Novel

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 →
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Bone Dust White

Bone Dust White

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 →
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Hunted

Hunted

Author:
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 →
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Wicked River: A Novel

Wicked River: A Novel

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 →
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Bloodtree River

Bloodtree River

Author:
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 →
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What wilderness mysteries have you read and loved? Which are still on your TBR? Tell us all about it in the comments section!

P.S. 20 books featuring seasoned female protagonists, and 4 authors that take you to plot school with their intricately plotted mysteries. Want to REALLY get lost in a good book? Try these 17 books I read in 24 hours or less (because they were just that good).

36 comments | Comment

36 comments

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  1. Cheryl Powers says:

    OMG! I didn’t think this was my genre, but really, all of these intrigues me. I read The Dry and loved it so glad to see another one my Jane Harper. I love the Longmire series but have not read any of the books. Adding all these to my TBR!

    • Jody says:

      Harper also has written a stand alone book called The Lost Man which is terrific. And the Longmire books are great, Johnson’s writing sometimes seems lyrical. He has a way with words.

  2. Maria Ontiveros says:

    I really enjoy the K-9 mystery series set in the Rocky Mountains by Margaret Mitzushima. They are five if them, and the most recent are filling my “3 books by same author” category in the 2019 Reading Challenge

  3. Susan Noltemeyer says:

    So happy to see a CJ Box novel on the list. I have read all the Joe Pickett series as well as his other novels. They are easy to read and the characters will become your “Friends.” I started giving these books to my brother in law and they helped him return to reading for pleasure.

  4. Holli Leann Petersen says:

    Anne, I totally related to your post. After reading The River, I also realized how much I loved the thriller/survivalist genre! I’ve added several of these to my TBR list!

    I recently read Celine trying to scratch the literary itch I’ve had since The River (Sorry, I realize this analogy is gross but I can’t put it any other way). I loved the first third of the book. I loved Celine and enjoyed all the flashbacks through her past. I think the reason I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to was purely logistical. My mom is on oxygen for lung disease and some of the things Celine did just weren’t accurate from our experience. And, the discussion of internet/wi-fi/cell phones etc. REALLY didn’t add up for it being 2002 in the wilderness. Lastly, the audiobook character for Pete sounds just like Mr. Renkins on the Curious George cartoons. LOL! Those kinds of things nagged at me enough that it knocked it down a few pegs. But there is no doubt that Peter Heller is a master writer!

  5. Lisa F. says:

    Several of these look really intriguing! I had never read any of this genre before I read The River this past summer–it went right on my keeper shelf. Such a great story and I loved the beautifully detailed descriptions of the outdoors and the wonderful examination of friendship.

  6. I’ve read (or listened to) nearly all of the Anna Pigeon mysteries–so fun and gripping! The audio experience (Barbara Rosenblatt) is an excellent way to experience them as long as you don’t have kids in the car with you. Definitely gritty, especially Hard Truth. She’s like a grown-up Nancy Drew and each one is set in a different national park.

    • Carrie says:

      As a park ranger in my former life, I discovered the Anna Pigeon series & loved it.

      Agree that Barbara Rosenblatt does a great job with the audiobooks, and would second that Hard Truth is particularly gritty, along with Winter Study. Otherwise, a really fun series!

  7. Michelle says:

    I love this genre!! Definitely one of my favorites. I’ve read many of these and am happy to learn of some new books! I love books set in the wilderness, whether memoir, mystery or literature. I love Peter Heller and Jane Harper. Although not fiction, Jon Krakeuer’s “Into the Wild” has a similar feel to me. “The Overstory” by Richard Powers has a central sort of mystery and has amazing descriptions of nature. I also would put “Freefall” by Jessic Barry on this list. And, “Dog Star” by Peter Heller has similarly evocative descriptions of nature as “The River” and “Celine” but it’s a dystopian literary mystery.

  8. Tom Proven says:

    An older book that I remember enjoying that was similar is Louis L’Amour’s Last of the Breed. Not one of his typical Western novels, which I haven’t read. I haven’t read The River yet, but it’s near the top of my TBR list. Thanks for all of the great suggestions!

  9. Janene says:

    I didn’t know this was a genre either but I am a huge fan of C.J. Box and William Kent Krueger. Someone else mentioned Dana Stabenow and I also love her Kate Shugak series. The River was sooo good! Many, many of these are going on my TBR list! As always, thanks for the great suggestions!!

  10. Suzanne says:

    I love Jane Harper so much — and have to echo another commenter that her stand-alone novel “The Lost Man” is excellent. And SO atmospheric. The Australian outback becomes its own character in the book and it’s just fantastic.

    • Abby says:

      agree 100%. I listened to The Lost Man while criss-crossing remote parts of New Mexico and I love it so much that I’ve vowed to re-read the other two books on audio with the same narrator. He is so good!

  11. Abby says:

    I just added so many of these. Didn’t realize this genre was what I was looking for. I love EVERYTHING by Jane Harper, and The River was excellent. I loved The Great Alone, which is not exactly in this genre but still good. Thanks so much for filling up my TBR with these outdoorsy books!

  12. Megan says:

    Thanks for another great list! Two of my favourite books with a survival theme are “The Mountain Story” by Lori Lansens and “The Bear” by Claire Cameron.

  13. Margie says:

    I enjoyed The River and just purchased another copy to give as a Christmas gift. We need to give gifts that start with the persons name and my person starts with an “R”, so The River is perfect, also picked Recursion .

  14. Janet says:

    I read The River based on recommendations from readers here. I really got into it! Descent is intense…not always easy to read, but well written and addicting.

  15. S says:

    I really enjoyed A Borrowing of Bones by Paula Munier, which involves a K9 rescue team. The second in the series is out now so I need to pick that up! Her books take place in Vermont which definitely has a lot of wild mountain terrain. Highly recommend – has wide appeal but doesn’t seem to get much deserved buzz. I gifted the first in the series to my mom who loves mysteries and dogs.

  16. Tracy Sherbrook says:

    Hello, Wilderness Readers! If you want true life stories, I highly recommend any book by Sid Marty. He worked for the Canadian Park Service for many years (back when they used cabins as outposts and were not centralized) and his true-life accounts of his adventures – often difficulty, harrowing, gritty, and occasionally funny – are all told with Sid Marty’s dry wit and keen eye. He clearly loves being one with nature, and this shines through it all.

  17. Doreen says:

    I love Craig Johnson but I want to add. Tony Hillerman and now his daughter continues his series from a female perspective. Anne Hillerman

  18. Laura says:

    The Nevada Barr books are some of my favorites for a quick escape. And it’s fun to see the places she talks about when we visit the National Parks! I think Blood Lure, which takes place at Glacier National Park, is my favorite Anna Pigeon mystery.

    I’m looking forward to trying some of the other recommendations! Thank you!

  19. Corinne says:

    I loved the Christine Carbo (Glacier Series, Montana) — I grew up right where the books were set and appreciated how the place was such a vivid character in the mysteries. The books can all be read independently but the characters loosely relate from story to story.

  20. Nina says:

    My recommendation: The Mountain by Luca D’Andrea. It’s set in a small town in the Italian German-speaking Alps, very atmospheric. The audiobook read by Peter Noble is excellent. I couldn’t stop listening.

  21. Katherine T Redwine says:

    Joseph Heywood’s Woods Cop (Grady Service) series. Set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Grady Service is a conservation officer, patrolling the woods for people breaking wildlife laws. The first is Ice Hunter.

    Cold by John Smolens. What happens when you escape prison miles from anywhere in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the middle of winter?

  22. Mary Jane McNeill says:

    I LOVED The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin!! If you haven’t seen the movie…GOOD! Don’t! Read the book and don’t be marred by how Hollywood interpreted this awesome novel. It made me a Charles Martin fan for LIFE!

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