One of the things we learn about life is that there are some things we can’t control. One of those things is nature. Even the wealthiest, most influential and most persuasive person can’t control the forces of nature that affect all of our lives. In a sense, that’s what makes nature such an interesting factor in crime fiction. It’s unpredictable.
Sometimes, nature is at the center of a mystery or thriller plot. That’s the case in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track, which features his sleuth, Mike Brody. Brody is a former Special Forces operative, now an extreme adventure tour guide. Detective Lisbeth McCarthy asks for Brody’s help when Sean Jackson, a fourteen-year-old asthmatic boy, goes into hiding in the dense woods near a Montana dude ranch. Brody and his ex-wife, Jessica, have arranged for a vacation nearby, during which they’d been hoping to discuss whether they might reconcile. Brody’s soon pulled into the search for Sean, who ran off after having witnessed a murder. With the somewhat reluctant support of the local police, Brody begins to search for Sean. Hilliard uses a “ticking clock” strategy as Brody has to find Sean, if he can, before the murderer does, and before Sean is hurt or killed in the dangerous terrain. In this story, that rugged terrain and the frequent natural dangers are as central to the plot as is the fact that the killer is still at large, and wants to find Sean Jackson as much as Brody does.
Terrill Lee Lankford’s Earthquake Weather also focuses on the force of nature and the havoc a natural disaster can wreak. Mark Hayes is a creative executive working for Prescient Pictures. His boss, producer Dexter Morton, is obnoxious, greedy, self-aggrandizing and not at all interested in supporting Hayes’ career. Unfortunately, Morton and Prescient Pictures are powerful forces to be reckoned with, and Hayes knows that if he goes up against his boss, his career could be over. Feeling trapped in what seems like a “dead end” job, Mark’s contemplating what he should do when nature decides for him. A major earthquake rocks the Los Angeles area, putting everything, including any Hollywood deals, on hold. Then, early one afternoon, Hayes goes to Morton’s house, only to find his boss dead, floating in his pool. The police begin to investigate the death and before long, Mark Hayes is the prime suspect. Now, Hayes has to deal with aftershocks and a host of suspects as he tries to find out who killed Dexter Morton before he himself is arrested for the crime.
There’s a very dark picture of the effects of a major storm in James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown, which features his sleuth, New Iberia Detective Dave Robicheaux. As the story opens, the city of New Orleans and neighboring towns have just been hit by Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of the storm, Robicheaux’s looking for survivors of the storm. In particular, he’s looking for his childhood friend, Jude LeBlanc. LeBlanc is a priest who was last seen trying to help members of his congregation escape the church, where they’d been trapped. He’d managed to get a boat, and was going to leave with the others, when a shot rang out and LeBlanc was presumably killed. The boat he’d gotten was seen a few hours later when some young thugs were using it to go on a looting spree. As Robicheaux investigates what happened to LeBlanc, and what happened to the young men who stole the boat, he finds that there was much more to this than a simple murder-followed-by-theft. Instead, it’s a complex web of events that are interwoven with the desperation and disaster that Katrina wrought.
Very often, even when forces of nature aren’t at the center of a crime fiction plot, they play a major role in what happens. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett’s killed on the second night of a journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Since Poirot is traveling by the same train, his friend, Monsieur Bouc, a Director of the company that owns the train, asks Poirot to investigate. On the night that Ratchett is murdered, a snowstorm strands the train. The very fact of the snowstorm changes the murderer’s plans, since the murderer had intended the crime to look like an “outside job” committed by a murderer who escaped the train. Now, the only possible suspects are the other passengers on the train, specifically those in Ratchett’s carriage. That changes the entire complexion of the crime, and helps Poirot find out who the killer is.
In Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), a storm off the Devon coast helps to strand ten people who’ve been invited to Indian Island for a stay. Each has been brought to the island under a different pretext. On the night of their arrival, though, the guests learn that they’ve been lured to the island. Each is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Then, mysteriously, the guests are killed, one by one. The survivors try desperately to leave the island, but a terrible storm has cut them off, and made communication with the mainland impossible. The storm also, incidentally, adds a great deal to the suspense in this novel.
A storm also plays an important role in Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold, which takes place at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. When Yves Bisson, a champion French ski jumper, is shot by a sniper during a trial run, everyone thinks that terrorists have struck. Soon, though, it becomes clear that Bisson was deliberately targeted. It seems that he was involved in a counterfeit traveler’s check scheme, and John Putnam Thatcher, a vice president for Sloan Guaranty Trust, looks into the case to find out how Bisson’s death and the counterfeiting scheme are tied together. During the investigation, a terrible snowstorm hits the area, trapping all of the athletes in Olympic Village, and forcing the tourists who’ve come to the area for the games to stay there. The snowstorm spoils the killer’s plans, too. The murderer had originally planned to spread the counterfeit traveler’s checks around the world, and make the scheme harder to uncover. But the snowstorm draws a circle, so to speak, around Lake Placid, so Thatcher finds it easier to discover who’s behind the scheme – and Bisson’s murder.
There’s also a major storm in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Came To Breakfast. Breakfast Island, also known as Providence Island (among other names), is a popular resort island. But it’s far from perfect. First, there is an ongoing animosity between the locals who’ve always lived there, and the tourists and those who are in business to serve them. As if that weren’t enough, there have been some very shady business deals for building on the island that involve shoddy workmanship and overpricing. Nick and Lori Bamba, who’d opened an inn on Breakfast Island, are concerned for their business, and ask their friend, Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, to make a visit to the island and look into what’s going on. Qwilleran is a former investigative journalist and now a columnist for the Moose County Something, so his “reporter’s instinct” tells him something’s wrong when he gets settled on the island. Then, one of the inn’s guests dies in a boating accident that turns out to be sabotage. Later, one of the cottages at the Domino Inn, where Qwilleran is staying, burns to the ground. Now, it looks as though a killer is targeting the island for more “accidents.” As it turns out, the deaths are related to the war between the developers and the locals, but Qwilleran and his friends almost aren’t able to solve the case. A hurricane blows through, cutting off communication with the mainland and flooding many places on the island. In the end, Qwilleran and the Bambas escape, but the tourist industry is more or less ruined. The hurricane adds an interesting level of suspense to the novel, too, as we’re warned of it in advance.
Storms play a role in Ann Cleeves’ Blue Lightning, too. In that novel, Detective Jimmy Perez brings his fiancée, Fran, to his parents’ home in Fair Isle to introduce her to the family. The autumn weather is stormy, and the island is more or less cut off, and that, of course, frays everyone’s nerves. And then a woman’s body is discovered at the Fair Isle bird observatory. I confess, I haven’t read this fourth in Cleeves’ Shetland quartet. But it was too good an example of the way a force of nature can influence a plot for me not to mention it.
In some crime fiction, nature seems to be almost another character. The force of nature affects the outcome of the story, and because it’s unpredictable, we keep reading. Which are your favorite novels where we feel the force of nature?
On Another Note….
My sincere and deep thanks to Rayna from Coffee Rings Everywhere for honoring Confessions of a Mystery Novelist with a Kreativ Blog award. I am humbly grateful.
I’ve already let you folks in on seven little-known facts about me, so I won’t rehash them here. I will just say this: I once took one of those “career temperament tests” to see what career would be a good fit for me. One of my top results? FBI special agent. Hmm… I wonder if this crime fiction thing I do has anything to do with that…
Again, thanks to Rayna. I invite you all to visit her thoughtful and very interesting blog.