Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Forces of Nature...

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.


  1. Congratulations on the award, well deserved.

    I had not thought about how weather can play such a major role in a mysteries, but I see now it can. Mother Nature does get her way. Weather can trigger a character to act in so many different ways. Interesting post.

  2. Mason - Thank you : ). I hadn't really thought a lot about the effect of natural forces, either, but as you say, Mother Nature is a force to be reckoned with, and very often affects what happens in a story, just as nature does in real life.

  3. I like weather in mysteries, it reminds us that we are not technological masters of the world! In the Ann Cleeves book you mention in your post, Margot, the weather is indeed very cleverly used. One of the things I admired about this novel is how the author took some classic staples of the genre (island, storm, limited no of suspects) and made them so fresh, without the need of techno wizadry.

    Another good "storm/island" novel is Simon Beckett's previous novel (his second). Written in Bone. The characters are isolated and stranded on a remote Scottish island.

    Less successful, but in similar vein, is Mo Hyder's Pig Island, which I did not enjoy very much.

    One of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch books (The Narrows?) involved floods in LA and the storm drains overflowing, somehow integral to the mystery but the mists of time have descended on me there, I'm afraid!

  4. PS the reason I have voted for Irvin Irving is because I collect "Irving"s (Henry, Washington, etc). It is my husband's name - a "good Scottish name" as his Dad always said. So Irvin Irving always made/makes me smile, though of course I hope that I don't ever meet anyone like him!

  5. Maxine - I'd heard that Blue Lightning is quite good, as is the rest of the Shetland quartet. I know I like the Vera Stanhope novels, too, so I'll have to read the quartet. I always admire it, too, whan an author is skilled enough to use plain good storytelling to keep us reading instead of, as you say, techno-wizardry. That island/storm motifcan be very suspenseful if it's done well. And, as you say, Beckett does it well, too : ).

    You're right about that Connelly novel, too. It is The Narrows, and it does make very good use of a storm. Thanks for bringing it up. The interesting thing about that is that in real life, a simple rain storm - and not even a serious downpour - can absolutely paralyze folks who live here in Southern California. In fact, it's sometimes referred to as a "winter storm." Just a very different attitude towards rain...

    I wouldn't want to meet Irvin Irving, either, but I think it's interersting your reason for choosing him. I always think that our personal connections with books make for some of the most fascinating food for thought....

  6. I always loved Emma Lathen books. I've yet to read Jamie Lee Burke, must correct that.
    I try to integrate weather into my writing but it is seldom good weather, I'm afraid. Using the sun in the way one uses a storm would be a good exercise. Certainly writers from the Southwest learn to do this.

  7. Patti - I hadn't thought about the way the sun and heat are used by Southwest writers, but you have a really well-taken point! The Gears and Tony Hillerman have used heat and very dry conditions really effectively. I ought to try that too, sometime... Like you, I do sometimes use weather as a factor when I write, but it's never sunny, hot weather. Hmm...

  8. There's also that Linda Costello book, Sworn to Silence, which features a bit of snow here and there I believe. And while I think of it, Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room has quite a few dramatic weather aspects to the plot, including the climax.

  9. Congratulations on your awards!

    And here I have struggled to remember my favourite bad weather story only to see that Maxine has just mentioned Theorin´s The Darkest Room (she always claims she has a bad memory, but that is just like you saying you don´t have a sense of humour). I also like P.D. James´ The Lighthouse (but I would not call it her best novel).

  10. Maxine - Thanks for the mention of Theorin : ). I've made a promise to read that one and Echoes of the Dead. I am looking forward to that. Thanks also for the mention of Sworn to Silence. That's another one that I've not yet gotten to on my TBR list, so I'm glad you mentioned it. I must learn to read faster : ).

    Dorte - Thank you : ). And I agree with you about The Lighthouse - on both counts. It may not be her best, but it is a good example of a novel where bad weather is an important factor. You're right about Maxine, too; regardless of what she says, she never fails to contribute wonderful ideas for books to our conversation - and I always come away with at least a few titles to add to my TBR list... As for my sense of humor? Well, I stand by my assessment ; )