The Summer's Best Mystery Novels

Take your pick from several mystery books set in the wild, best read by headlamp

Erik Storey was a ranch hand before releasing the first of his two-volume Clyde Barr series. (Anthony Camera)

“Except for the time I was digging my own grave at gunpoint on the edge of Biscayne National Park, I hadn’t much experience with a shovel.” So begins Shiver Hitch, the third Jane Bunker Mystery by Linda Greenlaw, the lobster-boat captain made famous in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Her heroine is a former Miami homicide detective turned insurance investigator who travels to Acadia Island to check out a mysterious house fire. Bunker discovers a body among the ashes, the victim boiled alive—“like a lobster”—and then burned to cover the crime. Meanwhile, a nor’easter maroons her on the island with the killer.

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(Courtesy of Scribner (left), Viking (middle), Minotaur Books (right))

Shiver Hitch is just one of several new installments in outdoor mystery series worth tossing in your pack. A Promise to Kill, Erik Storey’s sophomore release in his Clyde Barr series, finds the tattooed ex-inmate, ex-mercenary riding west from Colorado on his horse to clear his head. When he stumbles into hired-hand work on a ranch on Ute tribal lands in northeastern Utah, he finds that a dangerous motorcycle gang called the Reapers has moved onto the rez, wreaking havoc. What ensues is a Sam Peckinpah via Peter Fonda motorcycle western, but with drones. Storey, who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, is a former ranch hand and wilderness guide; he gives a high-country nod to the influence of legendary Florida mystery ­writer John D. MacDonald when, near the end, the hero reaches for a Travis McGee novel. Barr may be to the mountains what McGee is to the swamps. “At night, when the sun dropped below the rocky mesas to the west, the higher hills and mountains to the east would bleed red in the alpenglow.” The mountains most ­certainly don’t do all the bleeding before Barr rides off with the sunrise at his back. 

The catalyst for Keith McCafferty’s Cold Hearted River—my favorite of the bunch—is the true story of the sportsman’s lost Ark of the Covenant: Ernest Hemingway’s steamer trunk full of high-end Hardy fly-­fishing gear that was either lost or pilfered in 1940 while the novelist was en route to Sun Valley, Idaho. McCafferty’s hero, Sean Stranahan, is just the man to untangle the lines when a vintage leather fly wallet turns up in a dead woman’s saddlebag. Strana­han is a part-time trout guide, water­colorist, and private investigator who drives a 1976 Land Cruiser, lives in a tepee, and sleeps with most of the women he meets, including a one-armed former rodeo queen. 

This is the sixth Stranahan mystery, but it’s his intermittent lover, sheriff Martha Ettinger, who the reader wants to drink with. The law woman gets a finger shot off and keeps it in a jar of tequila on her pantry shelf. Bodies keep turning up in her backcountry—one was even found in a bear cave—and it’s up to Ettinger to pack them out. “The ­horses’ eyes went to disks like they did when you diamond-hitched elk quarters on to a pack saddle. It reminded Martha that in the end a human being was just another kind of meat.” The tackle caper takes Stranahan to Michigan, Wyoming, and Cuba, but it’s the fictional Hyalite County, Montana, that gives the book such noir terroir.

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