Rainbows in the High Desert Air

DesertLas 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.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Betty Webb, Patricia Stoltey, Tony Hillerman

16 responses to “Rainbows in the High Desert Air

  1. Not the most obvious place for a murder… you can see for miles and miles, after all. But yes, you are right, deserts have appeared as backdrops in quite a few crime novels. My most recent read was an Arctic desert – White Heat by M.J. McGrath. She conveyed so well that sense of desolation and danger.

    • Marina Sofia – I couldn’t agree more. White Heat conveys a strong sense of place, which in that case means desolation. So effective! And it’s interesting that the desert has been used as a backdrop so much. Possibly it has something to do with the danger and the harshness. Interesting point…

  2. The desert isn’t a place where I care to visit or read about. Although I have friends who love visiting the desert at all times of year. But both of the series set in Australia sound appealing and I want to know more about Australia. I have read some of the Napoleon Bonaparte series years ago, but don’t remember much about them.

    The first book in Charles McCarry’s Paul Christopher spy series is set partially in the desert. It involves a trip in a Cadillac across the deserts of Sudan.

    • Tracy – The desert really is a difficult and harsh environment, so I don’t blame you at all for not wanting to visit there. I do though really recommend the Hyland series and the Upfield series. They’re different of course, but both fantastic in my opinion.

      And thanks for reminding me of the Paul Christopher novels. I’ve heard of them but hadn’t yet tried them.

  3. Margot, you do come up with most unusual topics. The last novel that i read in which the desert played an important role was The Storyteller of Marrakash in which there is someplace in Sahara called the Desert of Love. As you venture inside more and more you drop your worldly possessions one by one so as to be totally unburdened when you become one with the elements.

    • Neeru – Oh, that sounds like such an interesting novel! And I’m surprised a story like that takes place in the desert. It’s such an elemental place, where things – objects – don’t have the same meaning that they do elsewhere for a lot of people.

  4. The desert was used very effectively in BREAKING BAD. It’s beauty and its treacherousness were equally documented. I find it a forlorn place but Las Vegas even more so.

    • Patti – Good point about that show. Such an excellent use of the setting. And yes, on the surface, Vegas is glittery and exciting and all that sort of place. But there’s definitely sadness and desperation too. The difference between surface level and what goes on underneath is really stark.

  5. I’m glad (and not at all surprised!) that you mentioned Bony, Margot. The Bushman Who Came Back is excellent. My favorite outback-based Bony story, though, is “Man of Two Tribes.” In essence, the harsh desert of the Australian outback and the Nullarbor Plain is almost a character in the book, as Bony leads a group of frightened and fractious people on a desperate march across the plain to – they hope – freedom and safety. Great book!

    • Les – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that one. I haven’t read it in forever. It’s a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post, too, so thanks. And really, how you one not mention the Bony series if one’s talking about the desert in crime fiction? Really.

  6. Not a crime novel as such, but Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men uses the California desert very effectively as a mysterious and haunting setting, and as a character in its own right. A wonderful book!

  7. I absolutely love deserts and fell in love with them after a trip to Arizona. It was wonderful to see the Navaho area depicted in Hillerman’s books in real life.

    • Sarah – I think deserts have such stark beauty. And they are awe-inspiring too. I agree that the Four Cornes area of the US, where Tony Hillerman’s stories take place, is gorgeous. Not easy to live in but gorgeous. I’m glad you got the chance to see it.

  8. I always get these lovely surprises when I get caught up on your posts, Margot. Thanks for mentioning The Desert Hedge Murders. I’ve set another mystery, a standalone, in NW Arizona and have the first draft finished. It can indeed be a dangerous place.

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