Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > In Pursuit of a Killer at the Talbot County Free Library
Though I'm not very good at it, I very much enjoy tracking. There's something evocative about sign, each print telling its own small, quiet, unselfconscious tale. A good line of track, one that leads to a den perhaps or the place where a deer was startled, can please me in the same way a good poem pleases me.
The true crime story I've just finished reading is full of tracking, and good tracking at that as it takes place in Siberia, where the snow is deep and the print consequently expressive. Indeed, the book begins with track. The story's main character, a huge ex-military man named Yuri Anatolievich Trush, studies the scene of a murder. In the snow, he can read what happened clearly: A man and his dog walks along here, north toward the man's cabin. Up at the cabin, the man's killer waits. The would-be assassin grows anxious, pacing back and forth. Instead of waiting to ambush the man at his cabin, he begins to move south, toward his intended victim.
And then something extraordinary happens. At the point where the tracks meet, the northbound prints disappear entirely. It is, the author writes, “as if the person who made them had simply ceased to exist.”
Which, of course, in a very real sense he had, for the murderer in this case was a Siberian Tiger, an animal that—according to John Vaillant's excellent work, The Tiger—is capable of immense speed, tremendous leaps, and assaults of the it's-all-over-before-you-even-realize-it's-begun nature. Vaillant is not just a true crime writer, or even just a nature writer, he is a storyteller of the first order. Consider his description of the roar that announces a tiger's attack. Vaillant describes it as so loud it “has an eerie capacity to fill the space around it, leaving one unsure where to look…. Those who have done serious tiger time—scientists and hunters—describe the tiger's roar not as a sound so much as a full-body experience. Sober, disciplined biologists have sworn they felt the earth shake. One Russian hunter, taken by surprise, recalled thinking a dam had burst somewhere.”
And if that isn't enough to scare the bejeezus out of you, how about the animal's reputation for bearing a grudge? Those that hunt and study Siberian Tigers have found—often to their peril—that a tiger never forgets or forgives an affront. Trap or wound one without killing it, and you have made an enemy for life. The animal will recognize you, pick you out of a crowd, and attack accordingly. Indeed, the subtitle Vaillant gives his book —A True Story of Vengeance and Survival—hints at the cause of the killing that Trush has been assigned to investigate.
And of course this is that most exotic and unlikely of beasts, a Siberian Tiger. How, the mind demands, could such a verbal chimera exist, how could such an oxymoron live and breathe? The answer to that question is found in the fascinating journey Vaillant takes his readers on to the mysterious land of Primorskii Krai, the one place on earth where timber wolves, reindeer, and moose share the landscape with leopards, saber-beaked jungle crows, and poisonous snakes … and ethnic Russians struggle alongside ethnic Mongolians, Koreans, and Chinese to make a living from one of the last great and truly wild frontiers. If you have ever seen Akira Kurosawa's classic film Dersu Uzala, then you will have some idea of the weird, wonderful intermingling of cultures, habitats, and climates that constitute the lost world of Primorskii Krai.
For me, Vaillant's The Tiger was the near-perfect book: a true crime story that combines adventure, murder mystery, natural history, and travelogue with a positively captivating storyline. Having purchased copies of the book for a couple of friends, I now want to recommend it to still more friends: all my fellow patrons at the Talbot County Free Library. You will find the book in non-fiction at 599.756 VAIL (I just love the 500's).
Oh, and while you're at it, you really should borrow a DVD of Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala through the library's Inter-Library Loan service. Kurosawa's directing is, as usual, flawless, and the cinematography breathtaking, but I think you'll also find the film's sound-editing impressive. As you're watching it, listen to the way the wind howls across the taiga, ice creaks beneath the tread of human feet, and logs burning on an open fire pop and snap.
Afterward, after you've read the book and watched the film, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you thought of Primorskii Krai and the strange and marvelous creatures who call it home.
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