It’s the End of the World as We Know it*

End of the WorldIt’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).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Ben Winters, Ellery Queen, Isaac Asimov, John D. MacDonald

20 responses to “It’s the End of the World as We Know it*

  1. These are some intriguing ways we are fascinated with the end. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything were the end would be peaceful and fun for everyone. We like stories with happy endings, but we never think of the end of the world as having a happy ending. On a lighter note, I’d like to wish you and your family a safe and Happy Holidays!

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thank you for the good wishes – I wish a wonderful holiday and a good new year to you and your family too. You’ve brought up something really interesting. In most of the speculative fiction I’ve read or fiction with a thread of speculation in it, the future doesn’t look good. And yet, most people I think do like things to work out. It’s a fascinating contrast isn’t it?

  2. The end of the world is an interesting theme in a novel, and especially (for me) if that novel is a mystery. Definitely reading The Last Policeman soon, maybe even before 2013.

    The Caves of Steel and The Green Ripper are both on my “to read someday” list, but don’t know when I will fit them in … or find a copy. Actually I have probably read both of them years ago, but can’t say for sure. I read lots of books by both of those authors in my twenties or thereabouts.

    • Tracy – I know what you mean. There are so many books I read at that time that I don’t clearly remember and should go back and re-read. I do recommend The Caves of Steel. A lot of people are put off by it if they dislike science fiction but the fact is, like so many other books, it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre or category. And of course John D. MacDonald’s series is so good. I hope you’ll get the chance to (re)read The Green Ripper. And I’m committed to reading The Last Policeman too. Soon.

  3. Skywatcher

    The 70s TV series SURVIVORS showed a world where 90% of humanity is wiped out by plague. The first episode is one of the creepiest depictions of the apocalypse I can remember. No big shots of cities in flames, but a scene where one of our heroines is told by her doctor friend that everyone who has contracted the disease so far has died, and the dead will soon outnumber the living. Another scene towards the end of the episode has our other heroine waking up from delirium to find that there is no electricity, no television signal, no radio signal, no telephones…

    • Skywatcher – Oh, I vaguely remember that show, although I’ll confess I didn’t watch it. But from your description, it sounds positively eerie. How terribly creepy!

  4. Margot, one of the more unusual mysteries that fits into this pattern is “The Daffodil Affair,” by Michael Innes, a mystery featuring Sir John Appleby who finds himself chasing – among other things – a horse that can count, a girl with three distinct personalities and an entire haunted house, all of which are taken away to a remote part of South America for use in a world-domination plot involving a megalomaniac who believes he can use psychic powers to reorder what is left of society after the end of World War II. It has to be one of Innes’s oddest mysteries, but it’s great fun. At one point, one character observes:

    “We’re in a sort of hodge-podge of fantasy and harum-scarum adventure that isn’t a proper detective story at all. We might be by Michael Innes.”

    To which the reply is made:

    “Innes? I’ve never heard of him.”

    • Les – Oh, that is really funny! Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for your vote for Innes. A truly talented author who doesn’t I think always get the attention he deserves. And that one certainly is a good example of what I had in mind. It certainly doesn’t sound like a ‘typical’ world domination plot, if there is such a thing. Even the characters sound…unique.

  5. My 12 year old niece rang me from America yesterday,when I answered the phone she hung up straight away. A few moments later her mum (my sister in law) rang me laughing – apparently my niece figured she’d learned all she needed to know by the fact that I’d answered the phone as it was already the 21st here and if I was answering the phone then the world hadn’t ended. She’s not one for small talk 🙂

    As for end of world books I haven’t read too many in a long time – I used to devour them as teenager and into my 20’s but somehow the older I’ve gotten the less comfortable I am with the theme – something to do with all the grimness following any fictional apocalypse looking scarily like our current world I suspect. But I must admit you have intrigued me with THE LAST POLICEMAN which I have discovered is on sale at audible). Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Bernadette – Oh, that’s really funny about your niece! She did indeed find out all she needed to know just by hearing you answer. A very efficient approach I think, if not exactly a chatty one. 😉
      I know what you mean about how similar the real world is in a lot of ways to the post-apocalyptic world we see in end-of-the-world fiction. Not at all a happy thought. I feel sort of the same way about certain political/financial intrigue crime fiction. The older I get the closer it all seems to what’s really happening out there.
      I hope you’ll like The Last Policeman. As I say, I haven’t read it yet although it’s on my TBR. But people whose judgement I trust have told me it’s a good ‘un.

  6. Interesting post, Margot. I’m kind of hooked on the rash of novels about what happens after the crash/bomb/meteor/etc so I especially like mysteries that deal with this subject. If you like a little sci fi in the mix, try Warren Hammond’s series (Kop, Ex-Kop, Kop Killer).

    • Pat – Thanks for the suggestion. I’ve heard of Hammond but not tried him yet. I just might; I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and ought to broaden myself a little. It’s interesting isn’t it how we get interested in a topic or theme and start diving into it. I’ve done the same thing. And there sure are a lot of books out there with that theme.

  7. Margot: Faye Kellerman’s book, Jupiter’s Bones, features a cult that evokes memories of Jonestown and Waco. It is a good book but the cult is so creepy.

    • Bill – Jonestown and Waco were really awful and scary weren’t they? And although I’ve read a bit of Kellerman, I’ve not yet read Jupiter’s Bones. If it evokes cults like Jonestown, that’s creepy indeed.

  8. natasha

    One, Two, Buckle My Shoe was one of the scariest books I’ve read. Of all the kinds of murderers, megalomanics like him are the worst.
    Caves of Steel- one of my favourite books. Love all the Bailey books- one of my favourite detectives for sure.

    • Natasha – You know, the reasoning of the murderer in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is so frightening. The attitude of “my life matters more than anyone else’s” has such scary implications. And I really like Lije Baley too. Asimov wrote some terrific characters didn’t he?

  9. ‘The Last Policeman’ s a great book and I’m looking forward to your views on it Margot. I only kept half an eye on the Mayan prophecy but was slightly bemused by it all. Someone posted a funny link on my facebook page which sums it up really:

  10. kathy d.

    This is not a topic that grabs me at all. I have no inclination to read science fiction or even to think about the possible end of the world. Of course, with global warming and climate change worsening, the topic does invariably enter my mind, but not as fantasy, as reality.
    Friends’ sons went on a five-day trek in South America to join in end of the world activities. That sounds like such fun.

    • Kathy – It’s scary isn’t it how close reality is coming to science fiction when it comes to things like global warning. And the older I get, the more things I see that are eerily like the end-of-the-world things one can read.
      It sounds as though your friends’ children had a great time in South America though. What an amazing kind of trip.

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