The Paris climate change accord is being praised all over the world as at the very least an important step in the right direction, as the saying goes. I don’t know what the long-term impact of the agreement will be, but many people who know a lot more than I do are hopeful that it will lead to real, positive change. I hope so.
What’s interesting is that people have been trying to call attention to climate change and other environmental issues for years. Certainly writers have. Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have been highlighting environmental issues for decades. Fiction, including crime fiction, has also dealt with those topics.
It’s a bit tricky to write a crime novel that addresses an environmental issue such as climate change. Readers want to enjoy a good story when they read crime novels. While they may agree with the author’s agenda, most don’t want to be preached to as they read. Of course, what counts as ‘preaching’ differs among readers; in general, though, they want stories where the focus is on the plot and characters, rather than the environmental issue.
For example, in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld. She wants to find out the truth about her brother Jacobus, who everyone thought died twenty years earlier in a skirmish with poachers. At the time, he worked with the Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit of the South African military, and was on duty at the Kruger National Park when he went missing. Now, Emma has become convinced that her brother is alive, and wants to find him if she can. As she and Lemmer trace his movements, they encounter several groups that want to preserve South Africa’s unique species of animals and plant life. They also learn how dedicated Jacobus was to this cause. It’s not spoiling the story to say that the commitment to species preservation plays an important role in the novel. But the focus is on the characters, the plot, and the buildup of suspense.
Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage features a planned road that will pass through Framingham Great Woods, near the town of Kingsmarkham. Many people are opposed to the road; there’s even a citizens’ group that’s actively working to block construction. One of the members of that group is Dora Wexford, wife of Rendell’s sleuth, Inspector Reg Wexford. She and the other members of the group want to preserve the forest and its species. The real tension in the story comes when groups of activists come to town, ostensibly to support the locals in their opposition to the road. Then, one of those activist groups take hostages, including Dora. Now the focus of the novel becomes the efforts to rescue the hostages. Then there’s a murder, and Wexford and his team have to deal with that investigation as well as the hostage situation.
Several of Carl Hiaasen’s novels feature the challenge of preserving Florida’s Everglades and other natural resources. For example, in Lucky You, we are introduced to JoLayne Lucks. When she wins a lottery worth US$14 million, she sees a chance to fulfill her dream of buying a piece of land and setting it aside as a natural preserve. Then, a group of neo-Nazis steals the winning ticket, and decides to use the money to fund a militia. Journalist Tom Krone has been assigned to do a feature on JoLayne, and ends up getting drawn into the search for the stolen ticket and the effort to get it back. While Hiassen certainly brings up the topic of wetlands preservation here, it’s really the eccentric characters and the comic/caper sort of crime plot that gets the proverbial top billing.
There are, of course, novels in which climate change is specifically addressed. One of them is Antti Toumainen’s The Healer. In that novel, Helsinki writer Tapani Lehtinen has become worried about his wife, Johanna. She’s a journalist who’s been following up on a story, but hasn’t made contact in over twenty-four hours. That’s so unlike her that her husband is convinced something is wrong. He decides that if he follows the story she was working on, he’ll find out what happened to her. That story concerns The Healer, a man who claims responsibility for the murders of several CEOs and others he believes are responsible for the ongoing destruction of the planet. And destruction there is. In this story, climate change has been partly responsible for millions of refugees, food shortages, and other dire problems. Little by little, Lehtinen gets closer to the truth about who The Healer is, and about what happened to Johanna. As he does so, he finds himself in more and more danger.
Mark Douglas-Home also takes up the topic of climate change in The Sea Detective. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate. He is also a dedicated believer in climate change and in human responsibility for addressing the problem. In fact, at the beginning of the novel, he gets in trouble with the law for his unorthodox approach to calling attention to climate change. So the local police aren’t particularly inclined to be cooperative when McGill presents them with another kind of problem. He’s been approached by Basanti, a young woman originally from India, who’s lost her best friend Preeti. Both were brought to Scotland as part of the commercial sex trade, and as soon as she could, Basanti got free of the people who were keeping her. Her search for Preeti leads Basanti to McGill, whose oceanographic knowledge proves vital to finding out what really happened.
Climate change and other environmental issues are important challenges that we need to face and address. The key for authors is to do so in ways that bring up these issues, but still tell an absorbing story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Gaye’s Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).