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Find more There Are No Higher Stakes
What the heck is an ecothriller? Is the term itself some do-gooder’s well-intentioned way of recycling one genre into another? No way. An ecothriller is a novel about crimes against the planet. A thriller with the highest stakes imaginable: the future of life on earth. A tale about vicious and bloody conflicts over nature, from pollution to poaching, often involving an ordinary, outgunned hero with the guts to face down a big corporation. (And let’s not forget good old mad-scientist suspense.) As in the best crime fiction, questions of right and wrong can be complicated: think about ecoterrorists, for example, or ponder the idea that ecothrillers are crime fiction in which we are both enemy and victim.
Some classic ecothrillers are not categorized as crime fiction, including Edward Abbey’s seminal desert satires, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) and Hayduke Lives! (1990). Or T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000), portraying ecowarrior and ex-con Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, and Boyle’s novels about California’s Northern Channel Islands, When the Killing’s Done (2011) and San Miguel (2012). But plenty of ecothrillers fit classic crime-fiction criteria like a gun in hand. Here are 11 of the best.
About Face. By Donna Leon. 2009. Penguin, $14 (9780143116592).
Leon’s Venetian commissario, Guido Brunetti, in his eighteenth case, meets a smart and charming woman at a dinner party and then ends up making inquiries about her husband while also helping with an investigation into the illegal hauling of garbage. As a murder leads to the convergence of the two story lines, Leon has Brunetti tackle environmental malfeasance, another avenue for governmental corruption, scandal, and the undermining of a beautiful, historic city already threatened by the rising tide of global warming.
Alpha Female. By April Christofferson. 2009. Tor, paper, $7.99 (9780765344205).
The author of popular medical thrillers takes on a story about endangered species. Former Seattle federal prosecutor Annie Peacock, the magistrate judge in charge of Yellowstone National Park’s judicial system, is facing complicated issues associated with animal poachers and the highly emotional controversies they stir up. People on both sides of the “wolf trial” are so deadly serious that someone shoots Annie’s dog and kidnaps her mother. Will McCarroll, a rogue backcountry ranger, wants to help. Christofferson deftly folds lushly descriptive details about Yellowstone into this tantalizing and exciting ecothriller.
American Tropic. By Thomas Sanchez. 2013. Knopf, $26 (9781400042326).People say what’s on their minds in this fever-dream ecothriller, from a radio pirate who rants about the environmental destruction of the Florida Keys to a shrimp-boat captain who brags, “I’ll net turtles . . . kill turtles with my bare hands if I want.” But while everyone else argues, someone is making their points with a speargun, executing men and women for crimes against nature and attributing the deeds to a voodoo avenger called Bizango. Sanchez’s fiery rage at the depredations of greedy developers and ignorant tourists infuses every page with a sense of near-apocalyptic doom. Think Carl Hiaasen channeling Edward Abbey.
Blood Shot. By Sara Paretsky. 1988. Dell, paper, $7.99 (9780440204206).
Paretsky was on the urban pollution case early, sending her still adored, still tough, and still tart-tongued Chicago PI, V. I. Warshawski, to Chicago’s South Side in search of a childhood friend’s father. Warshawski finds herself investigating a murder tied to a recycling plant, the powerful owner of a chemical company, a corrupt politician, an unethical doctor, and a mobster who controls the city’s waste collection. A riveting mystery tackling the grave crime of chemical pollution that betrays the public’s trust and puts workers and an entire city at risk.
Chasing Midnight. By Randy Wayne White. 2012. Putnam, $25.95 (9780399158315); Berkley, paper, $9.99 (9780425250617).
The best-selling White’s perennial hero, Doc Ford, a marine biologist with a shadow life as a black-ops expert, is undercover and underwater near a Russian yacht in his latest Florida adventure. He’s investigating the illegal international caviar trade in light of the ban on beluga products to protect threatened species, a case that becomes a lot more dangerous when ecoterrorists take over a nearby island. They’re claiming that if their demands aren’t met by midnight—just over two hours away—they will detonate the entire island.
Don’t Cry, Tai Lake. By Qiu Xiaolong. 2012. Minotaur, $24.99 (9780312550646); paper, $14.99 (9781250021588).
Qiu, a poet, novelist, and native of Shanghai, presents a magnificently written and truth-based environmental mystery about the far-ranging effects of chemical dumping. When Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Special Case Squad in the Shanghai Police Department, finds himself at a resort on Tai Lake (an actual lake in the Yangtze Delta Plain that is famous for its succulent fish and clear waters), he is disturbed by its toxic blue-green algae and what he learns about chemical pollution. Add in the murder of a lakeside factory director, and Qiu has the perfect catalyst for a crime novel that addresses the mystery of not only a death but also why we destroy nature.
Endangered. By Ann Littlewood. 2012. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (9781590586211); paper, $14.95 (9781590587850).
When zookeeper Iris Oakley gets a call for assistance at a drug bust, she thinks she will be picking up abandoned pets. Instead, she is surprised to find smuggled macaws and tortoises, meant for sale to collectors, in the middle of a pot farm and meth lab. She also discovers the body of a woman who escaped from the drug bust but did not live to tell the tale. The cops are only interested in the drugs and the murder, but Iris is determined to uncover the animal-smuggling operation, which quickly puts her in danger. Former zookeeper Littlewood has written a smart, fast-moving mystery dealing with highly relevant environmental issues.
Hurricane. By Jewell Parker Rhodes. 2011. Washington Square, paper, $14 (9781416537120).
Rhodes’ crime fiction is anchored to a tough New Orleans ER doctor, Marie Laveau, a descendant of the nineteenth-century voodoo queen. In the third Dr. Laveau novel, a nightmarish vision impels smart, cranky Marie to head to bayou country, where she discovers a triple murder, a dying voodoo healer, and a creepy enclave of the walking ill. Rhodes unspools a hair-raising tale that entwines medicine, shamanism, corporate crime, family ties, and the environmental devastation of Louisiana’s essential delta wetlands in a time of accelerating global warming.
Lucy. By Laurence Gonzales. 2010. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307272607); Vintage, paper, $15 (9780307473905).
Jenny Lowe and Donald Stone are studying bonobos in the Congo rain forest until the brutal civil war reaches their area. Jenny flees with Stone’s now-orphaned 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, whose preternaturally keen senses keep them safe. In Chicago, however, Jenny must protect jungle-raised Lucy. Gradually Jenny figures out that Lucy’s incredible powers are due to her unique heritage: she is half-human and half-bonobo. Forced to go public, Lucy becomes an instant and endangered celebrity. Gonzales raises profound questions about identity, family, animal and human rights, and genetic engineering in this keenly suspenseful and deeply inquisitive thriller.
State of Fear. By Michael Crichton. 2005. Harper, paper, $9.99 (9780061782664).
Crichton will always be the marquee science-thriller guy who created adrenalin-infused inquiries into the consequences of hubristic bioengineering, most famously realized in Jurassic Park (1990), The Lost World (1995), and Prey (2002). Here he takes on the all-too-real crisis of global warming. Millionaire George Morton is about to donate $10 million to the National Environmental Research Fund when he suddenly decides against it, then appears to die in a car accident. His lawyer, Peter Evans, is soon drawn into a web of intrigue and ends up in Antarctica, where a group of environmental extremists is planning an act of environmental terrorism to convince the world of impending ecological disaster.
Zodiac. By Neal Stephenson. 1988. Grove, paper, $14 (9780802143150).
Stephenson’s exuberant, witty, and sly second novel takes its title from the inflatable Zodiac raft his ecohero, Sangamon Taylor, uses to investigate the illegal source of the toxic runoff that is polluting Boston Harbor. S. T. traces the PCBs polluting the water to powerful corporations, finds allies among Native Americans, makes it on to the FBI’s most-wanted list, and takes on a crazed geneticist and the frenzied fans of a heavy-metal group. Bighearted, mischievous fun with a serious look at out-of-control science and industry and the shameful crime of poisoning the very sea of democracy.
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