I love reading a book with an interesting setting. And because I grew up in the Colorado high country, I’m particularly fond of mountainous settings in the western United States. The rugged terrain can’t be beat for creating natural barriers and challenges for characters to overcome.
Authors use settings in many creative ways. Often, those of us who write mysteries in the mountains use setting as a character, specifically as another antagonist that tests our protagonists, providing them with conflicts that force them into action that ultimately shapes them and makes them grow. We throw terrible weather conditions, floods, forest fires, wild animals, and all kinds of trials at our characters, placing them in life or death situations that they must resolve in order to survive.
Outdoor settings can be used to set the mood or tone for a mystery, and they can also reflect the tenacious nature and personality of a character. Some authors have even used specific aspects of the terrain as a murder weapon, a stroke of the pen that I find particularly delightful. (I know…sounds macabre, but I am a mystery writer after all.)
I grew up on a cattle ranch outside a small mountain town in Colorado near the Continental Divide, and it seemed like a natural choice to choose a similar setting for my Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries. Add into the equation that my hometown has also seen its share of murder and mayhem throughout past decades, and it didn’t take much to spark my imagination.
There are dozens of crime fiction series featuring a mountainous backdrop that readers might enjoy. I can’t provide an all-inclusive list, so I’ve focused on those set in the western United States and selected a few to spotlight to get you started. I hope you enjoy these mysteries and that you’ll soon be on your way to discovering many others.
Pamela Beason, Endangered
Endangered is the first of five episodes in Pamela Beason’s Sam Westin Mysteries. Summer “Sam” Westin, a wildlife biologist, accepts an assignment to report on cougars in a Utah park, which goes horribly awry when a child vanishes from a campground and the television news focuses on the local mountain lions as the likely culprits. Beason’s description of cougars and the landscape are particularly gripping in this outdoor suspense.
C.J. Box, Open Season
New York Times bestselling author C.J. Box creates masterful descriptions of the Wyoming Rockies in his Joe Pickett mysteries. Open Season is the first of twenty-one novels, providing the voracious reader with a binge-worthy collection of titles. This first episode introduces game warden Joe Pickett who finds a local hunting outfitter splayed out on the woodpile behind his home. Though local police solve the case, Joe is uneasy about the outcome and digs deeper into the investigation, discovering an endangered species that will interfere with the development of a multi-national natural gas company; and exposing this truth threatens all that Joe holds dear.
Christine Carbo, The Wild Inside
The Wild Inside is first in Christine Carbo’s four-book mystery series set in Glacier National Park and is a haunting crime novel about a man who finds himself at odds with the dark heart of the wild—and the even darker heart of human nature. Carbo’s writing style is described as atmospheric and evocative, and this gripping story about man’s intersection with nature provides an intense and satisfying read.
Scott Graham, Canyon Sacrifice
Book one of seven in Scott Graham’s National Park Mysteries, Canyon Sacrifice, brings the rugged western landscape of Grand Canyon National Park, the mysterious past of the ancient Anasazi Indians, and the Southwest’s ongoing cultural fissures vividly to life. Book two in the series, Mountain Rampage, is set in beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Throughout his series, Graham takes the reader on a tour of the national parks in the west while weaving a tale about archeologist Chuck Bender and his family. If you want to see how the landscape can be skillfully applied as a murder weapon, these books are for you.
Alice Henderson, A Solitude of Wolverines
Alice Henderson has launched a new series set in Montana with the first episode available now and a second to be released later this year. A Solitude of Wolverines introduces protagonist Alex Carter, a wildlife biologist who finds trouble as she fights to save endangered species. This debut is described as a fast-paced, action-driven tale of suspense with atmosphere and propulsive tension, and the second book in Henderson’s series promises more of the same.
Craig Johnson, The Cold Dish
The Cold Dish is New York Times bestselling author Craig Johnson’s first of seventeen novels in his Walt Longmire Mysteries. In the television series based on these novels, Johnson’s protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire, comes to life giving us a hero as rugged as the landscape in the setting for his novels, Wyoming’s Absaroka County. Full of memorable characters, this series provides another binge-worthy experience in which avid readers will want to immerse themselves.
Claire Kells, Vanishing Edge
Watch for Vanishing Edge, a debut by author Claire Kells coming November, 2021. It introduces a terrific new crime-fighting duo, Special Agent Felicity Harland and her four-legged sidekick Ollie, set in winter-chilled Sequoia National Park. Kells delivers everything needed in an outdoor mystery—vivid landscapes, a twisty plot, and engaging characters, both human and canine. This is a series you won’t want to miss.
Ann Parker, Silver Lies
For those who like historical fiction, Ann Parker has created the Silver Rush Mysteries, a series set among the jagged peaks of high altitude Leadville, Colorado, during the silver rush days in the late 1800’s. Silver Lies is the first of seven books (with the eighth on its way) and introduces Inez Stannert, a lady educated in the east who is now co-owner of a saloon. When a body is discovered behind her business establishment, Inez digs into the investigation and uncovers something besides silver—lies and secrets that run deep in the Colorado high country.
Dana Stabenow, A Cold Day for Murder
New York Times bestselling author Dana Stabenow writes the Kate Shugak novels set in the Alaskan wilderness among millions of mountainous acres that comprise The Park. A Cold Day for Murder is book one of twenty-two in the series and introduces Kate Shugak, an Aleut who left her home village of Niniltna to pursue education and a career in the justice system. When two national park rangers go missing, Kate, a former investigator for the Anchorage DA, is called back from a self-imposed exile to help find them. Readers can immerse themselves in the rugged Alaskan mountains as they follow Kate and her canine partner Mutt from one adventure to another in this terrific series.