Things Ain’t What They Used to Be*

Climate Change and EnvironmentThe 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).


Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Carl Hiaasen, Deon Meyer, Mark Douglas-Home, Ruth Rendell

40 responses to “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be*

  1. I live in Florida where climate change is a very hot topic. Miami is already have flooding issues and fear becoming an American Venice. They recently put on a voting agenda the desire to separate into two States, North and South Florida because they can’t get Tallahassee to pay attention.

    One of the characters in the Florida crime series I am developing writes government contracts and is working on ionospheric enhancement technology. I’ve researched the theories behind the H.A. A..R.P. project and plan to work that into a future novel as it relates to environmental weather changing. My genre is comdey caper, not serious crime. But I think I might be able to work that in 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing, S.K. I knew that climate change was a major issue in South Florida, but not about the move to divide the state into two. I can completely understand the worry, too, given Miami’s situation. I’ll be interested in your take on it all when your novels are ready.

      • They tried controlling the weather here and in Alaska…it resulted in eliminating hurricanes for years, that led to drought with no rain. The recovery from that brought devastating hurricanes in huge numbers. Interesting stuff…and kinda scary technology.

  2. Can’t think of any examples in crime fiction but it’s a major factor in the upsurge of dystopian fiction over the last decade or so, taking over a bit from the previous nuclear holocaust concern. I’m delighted there’s been an agreement – finally the politicians have taken note of the science. It’s only taken a few horrific floods, major storms, prolonged droughts and a massive refugee crisis to get them to pay attention! Still, better late…

  3. Col

    I do like the way Hiaasen gets his point across with humour and without preaching. Despite the comic undertones, you sense he cares about the state of the state of Florida and its shrinking wilderness.

  4. Great choice of topic Margot and some really interesting books here I’m definitely going to have to check out!

  5. I am glad you reminded me (again) of Hiaasen’s books. Amazingly I have not read any of them.

    • Honestly, Tracy, there is never enough time to read everything you want to read. That said, though, I like Hiaasen’s work. If you get to it, I hope you’ll like it.

  6. Great and timely topic, Margot. I can think of a few crime fiction novels with environmental themes, including my own The Dying Beach. Although it’s ages since I’ve read it, I recall Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (as it was called in Australia) have environmental themes. And Australian thriller writer LA Larkin deals directly with climate change in her novel Thirst.

    And though a film rather than novel, Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, made in 1977, turned out to be prescient in its themes of changing weather. My Andrew wrote a terrific piece on it here:

    • Thanks, Angela. And folks, if you haven’t read Angela’s Jayne Keeney novels (including The Dying Beach), you need to try them. They’re fabulous. I’ve heard of the Larkin,too, ‘though I’ve not tried it yet. Must do that. And read Andrew’s article..

      I agree with you about the Høeg. In fact, I almost mentioned it, but didn’t, so I’m glad you did.

  7. Kathy D.

    Glad The Dying Beach was raised here I was just about to do that, as it does deal with environmental destruction in Thailand.
    Andrew Nette’s essay about The Last Wave is very good. I’d like to find that movie somewhere!
    The issues of climate change threaten the entire planet, and are already impacting on poor and Indigenous peoples and nations. I don’t know if this agreement will really cause drastic change, which is what is needed.
    Some politicians over here — I won’t mention who (ahem) still deny global warming is a terrible problem, and deny evidence provided by the vast majority of scientists.
    So, I wonder what the impact of this agreement will be — as glaciers melt, polar bears get stuck on ice floes, hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis occur increasingly. We have to see.
    But I’d suggest authors use this issue as much as they can.

    • It is a very serious issue, Kathy, And it’s one that we need to pay immediate attention to, as you say. I’d like to see The Last Wave, too; I ought to look around for that. And you’re right; The Dying Beach is a solid example of well-written novel that brings up climate change.

  8. Some great examples of a theme not explored often enough in fiction (let alone crime fiction) – thanks Margot.

  9. Margot, the climate change accord, if adhered to in letter and spirit, would greatly benefit Indians considering the rising levels of pollution. Of course, India would need to keep its side of the bargain too. I had no idea there were so many novels with environment as the main plot or sub-plot.

    • I hope the accord is kept to, Prashant. It is good to hear how much it would benefit India, and I think it would really benefit all us, provided that we all adhere to it, as you say. I’m actually glad that authors are addressing this situation. The more attention is paid to it, the more may be done.

  10. It’s tricky to work in any type of social or environmental issue effectively in crime fiction..but you’ve found some excellent examples of writers who did! So glad the accord is moving us all in the right direction.

    • I’m very glad too, Elizabeth. And you’re right; it is tricky to weave in environmental and other issues into a crime novel. You want to address the issue, but at the same time, you want to tell a compelling story that people want to read. Not an easy balance!

  11. Carl Hiaasen is the person who leaps to mind here, isn’t he? A very good writer. And I am making notes of some of the others…

  12. I can’t think of any examples, but I can see how (if done well) the subject of climate change would be important and might add to the suspense.

    • I think you’ve hit on the key, Sue. It’s got to be done well, and it’s best (I think) if it keeps the focus on the plot and characters. Then, yes, I think it can be a really effective plot thread.

  13. You have featured some great examples here Margot but I have to admit I am one of those readers who is very sensitive to being preached at by authors – those that work best for me is where there is a balance of views, even if the ‘right’ one argues the points better!

    • You’re not alone there, Cleo. I think a lot of readers would rather decide for themselves how they feel about issues, or at the very least not feel that they are being preached to when they read. It’s one of the reasons for which I think the focus in a novel really needs to be on the plot and characters, rather than pushing a point too hard.

  14. CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series tackles a lot of environmental issues and his latest Badlands has Fracking woven intot the plot. CJ Box never lectures he weaves the social/environmental issues in deftly and succinctly.

  15. I don’t have any examples about climate change, but your post gets me to thinking that issues and events that seem so topical have actually been around for a while, a long while in many cases. All we have to do is look around, do our homework and research, sometimes finding the examples in fiction … plus ça change …
    FictionFan’s point on dystopian novels brings to mind for me the movie Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, in which the climate change is more implied than overt: L.A. is depicted as forever at night and rain soaked, and the beautiful people and well-to-do escape to other worlds in outer space.

    • You really make such a well-taken point, Bryan. Things don’t change all that much over time, even as they do. And you’re quite right; all the author has to do is look around and see what’s happening. Thanks also for the reminder of Blade Runner – a very well-done film, I think.

  16. As you noted, a lot of readers get turned off when been preached to about a topic, whether they agree or not. I like books with environmental themes, including climate change, but find the best approach is simply to tell a story with good descriptions and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Mark Stevens does a good job with his Allison Coil mystery series, based in Colorado, which has addressed fracking among other issues. At the moment, I’m reading Nelson DeMille’s thriller “The Panther” which is mostly set in Yemen. There he speaks of the once fertile land that has now become desert. He didn’t need to explain how and why, he just described the environment as it was and as it is now.

    • You put that really well, Pat. Readers don’t want to be preached to, even if they may agree with the author. Readers want a well-told story, with interesting characters. That’s what makes draws them in. The larger issues (like fracking and other environmental issues) can form a really compelling context, but if they’re the main topic, it soon gets tiresome. Thanks, too, for your suggestions; they’re great examples!

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