Christine Carbo has written two books set in Glacier National Park--the Crown of the Continent, and I'm so pleased wrote a post for Mystery Fanfare about Glacier and a strong sense of place in crime fiction. Christine Carbo is the author of THE WILD INSIDE and MORTAL FALL, which take place in Glacier National Park. Visit her online at christinecarbo.com.
Steeping crime fiction in a strong sense of place – where better than the Crown of the Continent?
I love reading crime fiction, especially those novels steeped in a strong sense of place: Denise Mina’s Glasgow; Tana French’s Dublin; Dennis Lehane’s Boston, John Connelly’s Los Angeles… the list goes on. But when I began my first mystery novel, I thought, I just live in Montana with no dynamic, bustling cities around me. How was I supposed to write what I knew so that it was credible, but still interesting and evocative? Then it dawned on me that I lived only a half hour from a place that people from all over the nation and the world come to visit: Glacier National Park.
As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, I must say that I enjoy many of the nation’s parks, but I am partial to Glacier, not only because it’s in my back yard—and where I spent a significant amount of time growing up – but because it has, indeed, lived up to its label as the Crown Jewel of the Continent. I have hiked many, many miles of its gorgeous terrain, which includes high-elevation panoramas, glaciers, tundra, wildflowers, wildberries, waterfalls, rushing streams, talus slopes, huge boulders, avalanche shoots and spectacular gorges that cut through intricate gray and wine-colored rocks lit by smoldering alpenglow. Glacier is a million acres of topography pushing up from the seafloor, indeed built from a primeval ocean bottom.
And it is not only stunning; it’s haunting at times. Some areas are desolate with wind-swept terrain allowing very little foliage to grow. A sense of danger lurks – that things could take a turn for the worse quite easily, either from bears, inclement weather, falling rock, steep ridgelines or forces you can’t predict. When hiking in grizzly country, it often feels as if you are testing fate, committing to a surreal experience in a place where bravery cannot be faked, especially if you accidentally come between a mama grizzly bear and her cubs. There are no brownie points for acting tough. A place like Glacier, breathtaking in its scale, reminds you that nature is always far more intricate and beautiful than any artist, writer, or scientist can ever convey. Its topography – over a billion years old – speaks of remarkable forces at play and reminds you of our threadbare existence on our planet. In some areas, you may find yourself feeling uneasy or moved despite the incredible beauty, and I believe this stems from our sense of impotency in the face of nature’s great forces, in the face of all that it is.
Plus, since so many of our nation’s national parks are located in rural areas, many of the small towns that are outside national parks are sometimes economically depressed and tend to have crime, often born from illegal drug use and production. The small towns outside the park definitely have their share of law-breaking, which made the park’s setting and its surroundings that much more ripe for crime fiction. Just driving to Glacier includes going through areas such as Hungry Horse or Coram, or the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where opportunities for employment and economic security are rare. Glacier National Park can be a joyous, happy place where people from all over the world come to visit, but it can also be an unforgiving, rugged place where many of its surrounding communities struggle for survival.
Since many parts of the park are as desolate as they are beautiful, I wanted to tap into this sense of both splendor and austerity. I felt like the landscape required it, just as a bleak northern setting pervades much of Scandinavian crime fiction in order to move beyond genre to a sense of the human condition as evidenced by the way its people interact with their stark environment. When people go to Glacier, they often want to escape in its beauty, but people are also reminded when visiting such wild places that they cannot completely disconnect from nature. They want to flee the concrete, but they still want a glimpse of what communities nestled beside such wilderness areas must deal with to survive, both in terms of the wild and their own economic and cultural situations.
And part of the draw to Glacier includes its many wild animals. Along with Yellowstone National Park and The Grand Tetons, it is one of the main homes for the grizzly bear. It also is home to wolverines, fishers, weasels, fox, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolves, mountain lions, marmots and many other fascinating creatures. Since national parks are undeveloped and unspoiled by logging roads and other manmade dangers and nuisances to wild animals, they remain places were you can study species in their natural, untouched habitats. When I first began to think of setting a story in Glacier, the awe and fear-inspiring grizzly came to mind. I began to ponder what would happen if my main character had issues with bears and the very park he needed to conduct an investigation in. Hence, my first book, The Wild Inside, is as much about whether the protagonist will find some emotional peace as it is about who committed the crime. My second book, Mortal Fall, features a secondary character from the first book, and also takes place in Glacier. The park, in essence, has remained a strong secondary character in all my books, including the third novel I am currently working on.
So, for a crime writer, the northern mountain communities near Glacier provide ample material. I feel privileged to be able to share a picture of the interdependencies between our communities and the natural world through my fiction and to invite readers to come experience the unforgettable beauty—and drama—of the world I love so much.
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