What do you get when you combine a wildlife researcher’s knowledge with a gripping plot and an admirable and likable protagonist? You get the books in this new series by Alice Henderson, the latest of which is “A Ghost of Caribou.” In each title, she cleverly uses the group noun for the animal that the main character, Alex Carter, is researching. In the first two books in the series, we read about “A Solitude of Wolverines” and “A Blizzard of Polar Bears” and now we learn about caribou in this novel. Personally, in addition to the fine writing and the characters I have come to care about, I love learning about the wildlife. Caribou? I had no idea that we had them in the US until I read this thrilling novel.
Of course, one of the points of the novel, in addition to the murder mystery, is learning about endangered wildlife. Protagonist Alex Carter works for the Land Trust for Wildlife Conservation and in her role there as a wildlife researcher she is responsible for investigating different species. In this novel, she is studying whether or not there is a caribou in Washington State. One might have been spotted on a remote camera. We learn a lot about caribou and how they differ from other similar species like deer and elk. Henderson never lectures, and the lessons, so to speak, are delivered naturally as part of the process of Carter’s work. But we come to care about the animals and it’s extremely frustrating that we see the futility of our Federal Endangered Species Act when it comes to real time protection of animals, a decades-long inability to protect species that are endangered but have not been formally listed. We also hate that the bureaucratic process works so slowly and inefficiently that there is a real possibility that species will go extinct before anything real is done.
She writes, “The Endangered Species Act was a valuable piece of legislation, but Alex had come to believe that its approach might be outdated. It dealt with species as if they were isolated problems to solve. In reality, things needed to be addressed in a more holistic way. What we need is an Endangered Ecosystem Act, she thought. Protection that addressed an entire ecosystem would benefit so many species at once: wolverines, mountain caribou, the American pika, and, of course, even human.” Especially for people like me who have been watching the indiscriminate slaughter of wolves in Montana this hunting season; reading what Henderson writes about how the killing of wolves doesn’t accomplish anything just made me more frustrated.
And I do believe that’s part of Henderson’s purpose in writing this series. She’s passionate about our environment and we see the terrible damage that climate change is causing not just in more destructive and uncontainable wildfires, hurricanes, warmer temperatures, but to the wildlife. She explains that we are “currently experiencing an insect apocalypse that was going largely unreported. Insects had declined by 75 percent in the last fifty years, due to loss of habitat, pesticide use, and climate change.” Then she explains why this devastation is so frightening. She adds, “Not to mention the sheer joy of a summer evening when fireflies dazzles in meadows filled with the song of cicadas and katydids.” (I remember seeing fireflies all summer filling the dark skies, but now it seems there might be one of two in my suburban yard. There is a movement to allow fall leaves to remain somewhere, in garden borders or under trees, to allow the animals and insects that need that environment to survive. By even mulching them into bits, the living creatures in the leaves are being killed.)
The mystery is well done. When Carter arrives at the land the Trust has purchased, a dead body is found in town. She is asked to keep an eye out for a hiker who went missing a year previous, and we see as there are mysterious lights that fly through the forest at night. One local is convinced that aliens are responsible, but knowing that Henderson is a scientist, we don’t really think that’s where this mystery is headed.
But there are also times when we want to scream at Carter for taking unnecessary chances. She knows there is danger in the area, yet stays out overnight in spite of the many risks that entails. She doesn’t tell the local sheriff about the lights at first, and we’re not sure why. And while each of the books in this series does work as a stand alone mystery, the occasional references to Casey, who has been a figure in each of the previous books, isn’t really backed up with enough information for new readers to know who he is.
The descriptive writing is engaging as she describes the sights and aromas in the wild. “Here, towering western red cedar and western hemlock trees grew to immense proportions, lichen hanging off their branches. The soil smelled damp and earthy, and she lingered, reveling in being out here in the mountains, the crisp air on her face.”
Do I really enjoy reading this series? Absolutely! Do I relish the action and the mystery and learning about the environment with details I wouldn’t otherwise encounter? Indubitably. Do I think that new readers should start with the first book in the series and read them chronologically? Yes. In that manner, readers will really get to know Carter’s background and learn about what she does, and they will better be able to enjoy the books.
Please note: This review was first published at Bookreporter.com.