Las Vegas is a major tourist attraction with lots to do. Because of that it’s easy to forget that it’s located in the middle of a desert. There are deserts in lots of different places in the world, and they can be beautiful. But deserts can be very harsh and inhospitable places if one’s not prepared. They’re lonely places, too, where it’s a long time between people. Deserts can be effective settings for stories just because of the danger; it can add a layer of suspense to a story. So it’s not surprising that we see deserts in crime fiction.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to the scene of the unusual murder of Enoch Drebber, an American who was staying in London boarding house with his friend Joseph Stangerson. At first, Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but when he himself is killed, it’s clear that someone else is responsible. It turns out that these murders have their roots in the American desert of Utah. Years earlier, John Ferrier had been stranded in the desert with a young girl Lucy whom he had more or less adopted. They were rescued and the events that followed that rescue led directly to the murders of Drebber and Stangerson.
Since several of Agatha Christie’s stories take place in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that the desert plays a role in her work. Just to give one example, in the short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Sir John Willard discovers and excavates an ancient tomb that’s said to be haunted and cursed. Not long after the tomb is opened, Sir John dies. Then, there are two other deaths. Willard’s widow is not a fanciful, hysterical person, but she is beginning to wonder whether there might indeed be some kind of curse. So she visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to travel to Egypt and investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings go to the site of the excavation and look into the matter. What they find is that there is a very prosaic reason for the deaths, and that someone has been using the curse to cover up murder.
Many of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are set in the desert of Australia’s Outback. Let me just give one example. In The Bushman Who Came Back, life at the Wootton homestead is turned upside down when Mrs. Bell, who serves as housekeeper, is found shot. What’s more, her daughter Linda has disappeared. Everyone is especially fond of Linda, so a massive search is launched. It’s suspected that a bushman named Yorkie killed Mrs. Bell and took Linda, Bony is sent to investigate and to try to rescue Linda if he can. There are several scenes in this novel that depict just how harsh the desert in that part of the world can be, and in fact, that’s part of the reason for which there’s such a sense of urgency to Bony’s search. In the end, Bony finds out the truth about Mrs. Bell’s murder and as you imagine, it’s not at all what it seems to be at first.
More recently, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels depict life in the Outback desert. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who is assigned to Moonlight Downs, an aboriginal encampment that’s,
‘…miles from nowhere. The nearest town, Bluebush, was four hours of rough roads away, Alice Springs another five beyond that.’
Because Tempest was brought up there, she knows the land and is prepared for the harsh climate. But that doesn’t mean she’s safe from desert danger…
Fans of Tony Hillerman will know that his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels are set in the American Southwest. The intersection of the US states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado is often called Four Corners, and is the home of several Native American Nations, including the Navajo. The desert there is unforgiving, but both Chee and Leaphorn have always lived in the area and have learned how to adapt to the climate. Novels such as The Blessing Way and The Dark Wind give readers vivid portraits of life in the desert.
So does Betty Webb’s series featuring Scottsdale, Arizona PI Lena Jones. Together with her partner Jimmy Sisiwan, Jones owns Desert Investigations. Jones is familiar with living and working in a desert climate, and she’s well aware of the dangers. But even she comes almost fatally close to those dangers in Desert Noir. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the novel; suffice it to say that the desert is not a safe place to be if you’re at all vulnerable.
And then there’s Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Former Florida judge Sylvia Thorn grew up in Illinois and has lived in Florida for some years. But she gets more than a taste of the desert experience when she accompanies her mother’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing tour of Laughlin, Nevada. The group hasn’t been settled in their hotel very long when one of the group members finds the body of an unknown man in her hotel room’s bathtub. Then, another group member disappears and is later found in an abandoned mine. Thorn wants to keep her mother and the rest of the group safe, so she begins to investigate. With help from her brother Willie Grisseljon, Thorn finds out who the murderer is and why the Florida Flippers seem to be the focus of so much mayhem.
As you can see, the desert is not the kind of place you want to be unless you are thoroughly prepared. And sometimes even then, it’s not all that safe. And I haven’t even mentioned the Arctic deserts…
ps. The ‘photo is of the sunrise over the Nevada desert. It only looks peaceful and safe…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones.