It’s 21 December 2012 and despite all the speculation, the world hasn’t ended. All of the discussion of the Mayan calendar and the end of the world shows though just how fascinated people are with the future and what would happen if the world as we know it now ended. There’s been of course a lot of interest in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction too.
In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) for instance, we meet Howard Raikes. Raikes is a radical activist whose goal in life is to tear down the existing institutions and infrastructure and build completely new ones. To him, the established institutions are The Enemy; they stand in the way of a better world. Raikes is dating Jane Olivera, whose uncle Alistair Blunt is the embodiment of The Establishment. Blunt is a successful and powerful banker who stands for stability, order and prudence. Although Jane agrees with Howard about some things, she isn’t as radical as he is, and she is fond of her uncle. Their debates form a sub-plot to the major plot of this story, in which Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot. Because Blunt is so influential, he’s made several dangerous enemies who might very well try to get at him at the dentist’s office, so at first it’s thought that Morley’s death might be a attempt-gone-wrong to get at Blunt. Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp is assigned the case and works with Hercule Poirot, who is also one of Morley’s patients, to find out who the killer is. The case gets complicated when another patient dies of an overdose of anaesthetic, and another patient disappears. The larger question of what the world should and could be like forms an interesting debate in this novel.
In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen takes a house outside Hollywood so he can get some writing done. His dream of peace and quiet is ended when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill. Her father Leander has recently died of a heart attack that she suspects was deliberately brought on. She tells Queen of a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father received and claims that he must have had a secret enemy. What’s more, Hill’s business partner Roger Priam has been receiving ‘gifts’ too. At first Queen doesn’t want to get involved but the strange nature of the puzzle intrigues him. So does Priam’s absolute refusal to co-operate in any way. So Queen begins to investigate Hill’s history as well as that of Priam. Then there’s an attempt on Priam’s life. Now Queen and the local police begin to get more involved. Queen finds that the key to Hill’s death and the other events in the story lies in the two men’s history. In the course of this novel we meet Roger Priam’s stepson Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac lives in a tree on the Priam property where he’s built himself a house. He wears as little as possible, and much of the time nothing at all. Mac’s claim is that the world is about to end because of nuclear attacks, so he wants to be prepared for life after The Bomb.
Isaac Asimov speculated a great deal about what the future might hold if life as we know it ended. For instance, his The Caves of Steel takes place in and near a futuristic New York City in which humans have divided into two groups: Earthmen and Spacers. Spacers are the descendents of people who left the planet to explore other worlds. They look to other planets as the best chance for the survival of the species and their technology reflects that. They’ve also developed sophisticated positronic robots that are an active part of their society. Earthmen on the other hand are the descendents of people who never left the planet. They live in extremely large domed mega-cities and look to making more use of Earth’s resources to ensure the survival of the species. Earthmen and Spacers dislike and distrust each other; in fact, they live in separate communities. So when famous Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, the Spacers believe an Earthman is responsible. In order to ease the tensions between the two groups, New York Police Commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Earthman homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to investigate. He also assigns Baley to work with a new partner R. Daneel Olivaw. At first Baley treats this like any other investigation. But then he discovers to his dismay that Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything Earthmen hate and fear more than Spacers, it’s robots. So the two detectives have to overcome several barriers in order to find out who killed Sarton. In this novel, not only do we see Asimov’s speculation at work; we also see the fear of the future reflected in the Earthmen’s attitude towards space exploration, robots and other developments.
In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee loses his beloved girlfriend Gretel Howard to a mysterious illness. When it turns out to be deliberately induced, McGee decides to go after whoever is responsible for her murder. He traces her death to a Northern California group called the Church of the Apocrypha, This group is committed to the tearing down and destruction of civilisation because the members believe that’s the only way that humans can be saved. McGee infiltrates the group so that he can find out why Gretel was targeted and take vengeance.
Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight both depict the end of life as we know it when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately shut off. In the first book Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their two children happen to be in different places when the oil supply stops. They try desperately to survive and re-unite and although the main plot in this novel concerns the reason the oil’s been shut off, I honestly think the Sutherland family and the way they cope is the more interesting aspect of this novel. But that’s only my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. The second novel takes place ten years after the events of the first. By this time Jenny Sutherland has become the leader of a small group of survivors who have made a home for themselves on a former North Sea oil rig. The novel concerns what happens when they discover another badly wounded survivor in a nearby town, and when they learn that another group of survivors, who live in the Millennium Dome in London, may have fuel. In both of these novels Scarrow takes a look at a harsh new world in which everything we take for granted has changed.
And then there’s Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman. In that novel, a meteor will hit Earth in approximately six months. Most people are giving up on life, quitting jobs, using drugs and in general living as though the world will end. For them, it will. And different people are reacting to it in a number of ways. But police detective Hank Palace is unique; he’s still trying to do his job. That’s why he takes a special interest when Peter Zell dies. Everyone thinks Zell’s death is a suicide like so very many others. But Palace doesn’t think so and investigates just as though there were no oncoming meteor. I confess I’ve not yet read this book, but it’s just too good an example for me not to mention it.
There are other examples too of course. Everyone’s got a different view of when and how life as we know it will end and it’s both fascinating and scary to speculate on it. No wonder authors face this demon in their novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine).