Thursday, April 21, 2011

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot*

Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Earth Day, originally established in 1970 as part of an environmental movement. It’s a very good thing to be respectful of the earth and of nature for many reasons. As crime fiction shows us, nature is a force to be reckoned with; those who don’t respect it and try to bend nature to their wills often find out that the earth and nature are much stronger than they imagined. In the end, those who ignore the power of natural forces often end up regretting it.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels to London on the world famous Orient Express. One of his fellow passengers is Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman. On the second night of the journey, a sudden snowstorm strands the train. Then, Ratchett is stabbed to death. M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits and a friend of Poirot’s, asks Poirot to investigate the murder and Poirot agrees. He begins to ask questions and it’s not long before he uncovers Ratchett’s background and in doing so, finds out the motive for the murder. Once Poirot discovers that motive, he’s able to figure out which of Ratchett’s fellow travellers murdered him. One of the advantages that Poirot has is that the murderer didn’t take the bitter Eastern European winter weather into account. There were no plans for what to do if there was a snowstorm and that fact makes it easier for Poirot to sort out the real clues from the “red herrings” in this case.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter unexpectedly spend New Year’s Eve in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. While they’re there, Wimsey uses his skills as a bell-ringer to help when one of the church’s regular change-ringers is too ill to ring his bell. The next day, Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, dies of influenza and is duly buried. A few months later, her husband dies, too. When the gravediggers open Lady Thorpe’s grave to bury her husband beside her, they find another corpse is already there. Reverend Theodore Venables, Vicar of St. Paul, writes to Wimsey, asking him to investigate, and Wimsey returns to the village to help find out who the dead man is and how his body got into Lady Thorpe’s grave. He discovers that this death is related to a long-ago theft, a missing emerald necklace and a case of hidden identity. In an interesting sub-plot to this novel, a new Wash Cut has been planned to manage the water and drainage system in the area. There’s nothing really wrong with the current system of water management, but the goal is bring a steadier supply of water to the area. So, despite warnings that the new Wash Cut is neither necessary nor desirable, the project is carried out. That attempt to re-balance nature backfires tragically towards the end of the novel when a terrible spring storm breaks the local sluice gates and floods the region.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, a group of thieves led by Mike Daniels makes elaborate plans to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. Their scheme is to dig a tunnel using the local sewer system which, in turn, will give them underground access to the bank. To put their plan into action, Daniels knows the team will need some expertise, so he enlists Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s desperate for money, to join the group. Booker agrees and the plans are laid in place. The day of the bank robbery dawns bright and clear and the men think that their scheme will go smoothly and it does at first. Then, a sudden storm springs up and floods the tunnel and sewers, with tragic results. What’s interesting about this is that Daniels even considers that possibility, but in the end decides to go through with the robbery. It’s a clear reminder that nature follows its own rules.

The balance of nature is also an important theme in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi trilogy. Beginning with The Visitant, the series is the story of archaeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. The two begin working together when Stewart and his team find eight sets of ancient remains in an unexpected place. Cole is called in to help get to the truth about what happened to the victims and how their bodies got to the site where they’re found. Parts of the series take place during a modern-day timeline, and we follow Stewart, Cole and their team as they use forensic and archaeological evidence to piece together what happened. Parts of the series take place during the 13th Century; during those parts of the series, we follow Anisazi war chief Browser and his deputy and friend Catkin as they investigate the same mysteries. In time, other remains are found and both the modern-day research team and the 13th Century team discover that the Anisazi people have made tragic mistakes in the way they manage their resources. Those mistakes have cascading effects, including some of the deaths that both teams investigate.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, marine biologist Chaz Perrone gets an object lesson in what happens when nature is not respected. He’s a shady operator who actually dislikes nature and has little respect for natural forces. In fact, he only became a marine biologist through a series of ironic events and is stuck in a job he dislikes. Then, Perrone discovers a way to alter water testing records so that water samples drawn from the Florida Everglades test “clean,” even when they are not. This proves to be very beneficial to Perrone’s new employer Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut. Hammernut owns, among other things, a successful commercial agricultural business that is responsible for a lot of toxic waste being poured into the Everglades. Perrone’s strategy “covers” Hammernut’s pollution, and for a while, all’s well. Then, Perrone begins to fear that his wife Joey has tumbled onto his scheme. So he arranges a cruise for the two of them, telling Joey that it’s an anniversary gift. One night, he pushes Joey overboard, assuming that she’ll drown and his secret will be safe. That’s not what happens, though; Joey is a former champion swimmer and manages to stay alive long enough to be rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for the Florida Attorney General’s office. Together, the two of them concoct a plan to make Chaz Perrone believe that someone saw him push his wife overboard and is now going to blackmail him. Their strategy makes Perrone increasingly nervous, and Hammernut increasingly concerned about Perrone’s dependability. Now, Perrone up against threats from Hammernut, the person he thinks is blackmailing him, and the police, who suspect him of Joey’s murder. In a fitting end, though, you could say that really, Mother Nature has the final say in what happens to Chaz Perrone.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road also raises issues of natural forces and their balance. Emily Tempest has just accepted a job as an Aboriginal Community Police officer. On her first day on the job, she and her team are called to the scene of a murder at the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse. Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been killed and his body found in his shack. Also found in Ozolins’ shack is a very drunk John “Wireless” Petherbridge. The two had had a terrible public argument hours before, so Wireless is immediately the most likely suspect. Tempest isn’t so sure of that, but her new boss Bruce Cockburn tells her to stay aw ay from the case. That doesn’t stop Tempest, though, and she begins to investigate. What she discovers is that Doc had been conducting research on a groundbreaking theory about geologic evolution. In the process, he made another discovery that someone does not want made public. He was killed because of his discovery about what has happened and is happening to the earth, and when Tempest finds that out, she starts on the path that leads her to the killer. Along the way, she gets valuable guidance from several people who are very “tuned in” to the earth’s balance.

As we can see just from a quick look at some crime fiction, nature is a powerful force. So be kind to the planet; you never know what could happen if you aren’t….. After all, to use the words of an old U.S. television ad, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi.


  1. Margot, another wonderful post and most fitting for Earth Day. Mother Nature has a way of changing the course of our lives in a matter of a few seconds. Including Mother Nature in a story just adds more realism to it and as you pointed out, can lead to some very interesting adventures. Happy Earth Day.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. The opposite of those sudden storms occurs in Peter Robinson's In A Dry Season when a village flooded to create a reservoir is exposed by a drought. A few gloriously sunny days and we are already worrying about hosepipe bans and stand pipes, and that in the second wettest area in England.

  3. Mason - Thank you :-). And yes, you never know what Nature is going to do. When Nature does play a role in a novel, this can certainly add a lot of suspense to a story - realism, too. Nature does look for a balance and it isn't there, Nature finds that balance... And I wish you and your family a wonderful Easter, too.

    Norman - Oh, In a Dry Season is a good example of the way people try to "force Nature's hand." And that's a good story, too. Thanks for the reminder. I'm glad you folks have had some lovely weather, but I know what you mean about the warnings and worries. Rain is a precious commodity where I live, but the area is subject to mudslides, so the minute there is any rain, people worry, even though really, we need the groundwater badly.

  4. Because I'm down in Mexico, I often forget when the American and Canadian holidays are. (They are different down here) However, I agree that you shouldn't mess with nature. I think we're seeing a world that is being mistreated (oil spills, pollution, over-population, waste buildup). I think mother nature is responding with hurricanes and natural disasters galore!

  5. I read one book in the series by the Gear's. Didn't think I would like it at first but ended up loving it. I'm also reminded of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series when thinking of nature. My favorite nonfiction nature writer of all was Hal Borland whose nature column appeared in the Sunday NY Times for many years, and who wrote many books about nature in your own backyard.

  6. Clarissa - One of the things I find fascinating about different countries and cultures is their different holidays. I wish I knew more of them, and more about them...

    And you're right, too. Whenever we stress the earth out, there are consequences. I'm honestly not sure what the best way is to balance nature's needs with human needs, but there has to be a better one than we have now. As you say, nature will respond...

    Barbara - Oh, I remember Borland's columns! Thanks for the reminder :-). He really was a talented writer, wasn't he?

    And thanks also for the reminder of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series. I didn't think of that one at first when I was preparing this post, but you're quite right; it's relevant. And it's funny; I wondered, too, what I would think about the Gears' work, but I have really enjoyed it :-).

  7. Everyone is certainly seeing signs that the planet isn't feeling at her best; time to wake up! Between Man and Nature, Nature always wins. Why? She's a woman. Seriously, I love when weather is a character in books, whether it's a snowstorm that's stranded people (very Agatha Christie) or a freak cloudburst that causes strangers to talk in doorways.

  8. Elspeth - No doubt about it; humans may win a battle here and there, but Nature wins the war. And you're quite right that we need to keep in mind how fragile our life on the planet really is...

    I think it adds a very nice touch, too, when weather and climate play a role in a story. I just love your example of a cloudburst leading to strangers talking, which leads to.... Love it!!