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  • Dave Butler

Environmental Mysteries and Public Debate: Can One Enhance the Other?

By Dave Butler

I work in sustainable tourism in Western Canada, and every day, I deal with issues such as climate change, land use conflicts, and species-at-risk. And every day, I see wildlife species such as endangered mountain caribou (or sage grouse … or wolves … or grizzly bears) at the epicenter of debates pitting the environment against the economy. What motivated a professional forester, biologist, and former national park warden with that background to write mystery novels? Good question!

After many years of undertaking field work, writing technical reports and attending public meetings, and after decades of observing people attempting to paint complex environmental issues as black or white, win or lose, or right or wrong, I came to recognize – in a flash of the blindingly obvious – that these situations were gold mines for plots in mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction.

I launched into writing mysteries four years ago with my first novel – Full Curl (Dundurn Press). It’s loosely based on an international investigation in which I was involved as a law enforcement warden in Banff National Park. In Full Curl, I wrote about a simple premise: what if someone saw the national parks as a source of trophy animals, animals that didn’t perceive humans as a threat?

In my second novel (No Place for Wolverines; Dundurn Press), my antagonist is an American real estate developer who proposes a ski area beside a national park. However, the project is not what it seems. And like development proposals tend to do (think pipelines, hydro dams and residential subdivisions), the proposal divides a small town … with dramatic consequences.

In In Rhino We Trust (Dundurn Press), the 3rd in the series, I weave the interconnections between rhino poaching, poverty and international crime syndicates into a mystery that races across the harsh landscapes of Namibia. Is poaching somehow more acceptable if men do it to feed their families, and only because they may have no other options?

In each of these three mysteries, I use the interactions between people with differing perceptions of our natural world. Across the globe, there’s lots of grist for that mill. Time after time, in issue after issue, there are strident voices on both sides of environmental issues, all claiming the higher ground, the better argument, or in some cases, some God-given wisdom about what is right. Those differences can – and do – push people apart.

And they make them do things they might not otherwise do. Such as cheat … or steal … or blow up hydro dams or put sand in gas tanks (thank you, Edward Abbey) … or kill. What a smorgasbord of possibilities for an author in search of ideas!

In writing mysteries, I use the three p’s – people, place and plot -- to dig deeper into the opposing viewpoints in these complex and emotional issues. The list of characters (people) in the novels embodies the diversity of opinions. Because there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of these issues (it’s not always clear which is which…), the list of potential characters in a mystery, and their potential motivations, are a treasure trove of tension, conflict and caustic relationships.

Place creates the environment in which the people interact. Stories can be set in coastal rainforests, interior grasslands or the high alpine or arctic, each with unique climate and weather, vegetation types and wildlife species. They can be at a micro-scale … like the endangered wetland habitats of the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid which is measured in square feet … or at a continental scale, such as the alpine and sub-alpine ranges of the mountain caribou or the grizzly bear. The scale of the issue sets the scale of the mystery.

Plot carries the story, builds tension, and answers the many ‘what if?’ questions that are a critical foundation for mysteries. Ideally, the plot also encourages readers – while enjoying a great story – to think, to question their own opinions and assumptions, and perhaps, to understand how and why others hold differing views.

It is that last point that intrigues me as a novelist. Because millions of readers across the globe enjoy them, can environmental mysteries also create a fourth ‘p’ -- purpose? Do they have a role in encouraging conversations? At a time when civil debate is increasingly fractured, do we have an opportunity as writers to do more than just tell a good story?

While this may not be the primary justification for writing environmental mysteries, I believe that it can be an unintended result. These entertaining stories can help people understand their own points of view, and perhaps understand the views of others. Ideally, they might be the starting point for much-needed conversations focused on sustainable solutions to the complex issues we face as a society. As an author of environmental mysteries, I see that as an exciting opportunity.

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