Category Archives: W. Michael Gear

We Could Learn From Digging Down*

Archaeoloists and AnthropologistsA recent article I read reported on the discovery of the 430,000-year-old remains of a murder victim in a cave in Spain. One of the things this finding suggests is that people have been killing one another for a very, very long time. That violent aspect of human nature is (at least) another post in itself.

Another thing that the article made clear is that modern science can reveal a great deal about ancient life – but not everything. In this case, experts have established how the victim was probably killed, and what the likely weapon might have been. But with an ancient murder like that, there’s no way to tell who the killer was or what the motive was. We can suppose, but there’s no longer any evidence to bear on those matters.

And in real life, that’s the sort of unanswered question that forensic archaeologists often face. How does that translate into crime fiction? After all, crime fiction fans usually want answers to the who/how/whydunnit questions that come up in a novel. Not every tiny thread needs to be knotted, but most fans want to know what’s behind a murder.

Some authors manage that balance by writing about murders that aren’t so ancient. For instance, Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist whose main interest when the series starts is the study of ancient human remains and fossils. He’s very good at what he does, and in Fellowship of Fear, that skill helps him solve a very modern mystery involving international intrigue and espionage. In Twenty Blue Devils, he is called to Tahiti to help solve the murder of coffee plantation manager Brian Scott. Oliver has the skills to make very solid deductions about ancient remains. But the murders he investigates are recent enough that he can also draw conclusions about motives and so forth as well.

Simon Beckett’s David Hunter is also a forensic anthropologist. When the series featuring him begins (with The Chemistry of Death), he’s given up his work in forensics and become a small-town doctor in the village of Manham. But he’s drawn back into the profession when one of the town’s residents, Sally Poole, is found brutally murdered. Hunter is somewhat of an outsider, since he’s only been in town for three years. So a certain amount of suspicion comes his way. Then, another woman goes missing. Hunter works with the police both to clear his own name and to find the killer before there’s another victim. In this novel, as well as in the other novels in this series, Hunter investigates murders that are modern enough so that witnesses can be interviewed and so on. The same is true of Kathy Reichs’ Temperence ‘Tempe’ Brennan novels.

What about fictional murders that take place in the more distant past? How can an author credibly ‘fill in the gaps’ as to killer, motive and the like? One way is to use letters, diary entries and other written records. Humans have been using written symbols for many thousands of years, so it’s logical a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist might use those records. That’s what Beverly Connor’s Lindsay Chamberlain does. Chamberlain is a University of Georgia forensic anthropologist whose specialty is archaeology. Beginning with A Rumor of Bones, Chamberlain investigates old (sometimes very old) murders as well as newer murders. She certainly uses forensics clues such as skeletal evidence. But she also uses clues such as diary entries to piece together the whole story of even an ancient murder. Kill Site, which hasn’t been published yet, will focus on a Paleo-Indian dig site. Many Native American nations don’t have what we generally think of as written languages, so it’ll be very interesting to see how Connor approaches that story.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that Galloway is a forensic archaeologist associated with the University of North Norfolk. As such, she is interested in ancient sites, and is skilled at reading the stories that remains have to tell. In The Crossing Places, for instance, she uses her knowledge and skills to determine that some newly-discovered bones are not the remains of Lucy Downey, whose disappearance DCI Harry Nelson is investigating. Instead, the bones belong to a girl from the Iron Age, and they suggest all sorts of interesting lines of research for Galloway. At the same time, she also gets caught up in Lucy’s disappearance and investigates that as well as the disappearance of Scarlet Henderson, who’s just recently gone missing. This novel doesn’t tell the reader who the Iron Age girl really was, what her family was like or precisely why she died. Instead, the focus is more on the modern cases. Yet, a lot is suggested by the original discovery, and I can say without spoiling the story that Galloway draws some interesting conclusions based on those ancient remains. Her conclusions are realistic, though.

Some authors, such as Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, take another approach to telling stories of ancient murders. In their Anasazi trilogy, for instance, there are actually two plot lines. One concerns archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart, who takes a team on a dig in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. His goal is to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in that desert’s Chaco Canyon. When he and his team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been buried in a mass grave, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole joins the group. Her role will be to study the remains and try to establish how the women died. There isn’t much evidence to suggest who the women were or why they died. But both Cole and Stewart use their skills, as well as what they know about that period of time, to deduce what probably happened. The other plot line ‘fills in the gaps’ about those deaths. It’s the story of 13th Century Anasazi War Chief Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin. When they discover an unexpected body in a gravesite intended for Browser’s son, they start to ask questions. Then there’s another attack. Now it seems that a very dangerous force is at work among the Anasazi, and Browser and Catkin work to find out the truth. In this case, the modern-day scientists don’t really have letter, diaries or other written evidence; and they certainly can’t interview suspects or witnesses. So the authors chose to tell the story from the perspective of someone who might have been able to talk to witnesses and suspects. It’s a dual timeline approach, and admittedly, we can’t know precisely what one 13th-Century member of this group might have said to another. But it’s credible because the story is based on things that we do know.

Authors who choose to tell stories of ancient murders do face the challenge of finding credible ways to solve them. There are certainly different approaches to meeting that challenge in a plausible way. It’s interesting to see how authors go about it. Oh, and in an interesting note, Elkins, Reichs, Connor and both Gears are or have been professional archaeologists or anthropologists. It’s fascinating to watch as they weave their experiences into their stories.

ps. I can’t help but think that the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke would have found this latest discovery to be really interesting. I wish she were here to read up on it…MC


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.




Filed under Aaron Elkins, Beverly Connor, Elly Griffiths, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Kathy Reichs, Simon Beckett, W. Michael Gear

Puzzle Pieces in the Ground*

ArchaeologyBy now you’ve probably heard of the discovery of the bones of England’s King Richard III in Leicester. And as it happens, today (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been Mary Leakey’s 100th birthday. So it seems like the perfect time to dig up some crime fiction that has archaeology as its focus. There’s a lot of it too and that makes sense. Archaeologists have added much to our knowledge of history, they’ve answered a lot of questions and they’ve given us a fascinating perspective on ourselves as a species.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she was married to an archaeologist, so several of her stories and novels have that science as a theme. I’m only going to mention one. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot is returning home after a visit to the Middle East when he is asked to break his journey and investigate a murder. Louise Leidner, wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner, has been found bludgeoned in her room. As Poirot gets to know the excavation team he discovers that there were several members of the team who had a good motive for murder. Besides the mystery itself, this novel gives readers a look at the way archaeologists go about what they do – or at least the way they did so at the time the novel was written. There’s information on digging, cleaning pottery and other finds and storing antiquities.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man is the story of the murder of Harry Steadman. Steadman is an archaeologist with Leeds University when an inheritance frees him to pursue his own goals. His passion is the set of Roman ruins in Yorkshire so he and his wife Emma move to that area. He begins to work on a large excavation project which he hopes will yield some fascinating material. When Steadman is murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate the death. And there are several suspects too, including those who are opposed to a potentially valuable piece of land being set aside for an archaeological dig. As the novel moves along we learn something about the politics of getting permission to dig, starting the process and dealing with the egos involved.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi Mystery trilogy features archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart. As a young man, he was mentored by Dr. Dale Robertson and has learned from his role model not just the scientific elements of archaeology but also its nuances. Stewart has a real feel for the Sonoran desert in which this trilogy takes place and a real respect for the people who live there. In The Visitant, the first in this series, he and his dig team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been murdered. Robertson convinces him to work with Dr. Maureen Cole, a forensic anthropologist, to find out who these women were and why they were buried where they were found. Cole and Stewart have very different approaches to going about their research, but they complement each other and in the end we learn what happened to the victims. Throughout this trilogy (The Summoning God and Bone Walker are the other novels), readers get an ‘inside look’ at what it’s like to live and work on a dig site. The life is not at all romanticised but it’s easy to see its appeal.

Jessica Mann’s Tamara Hoyland is an archaeologist who, in the course of the series that features her, also becomes an agent for British Intelligence. In Funeral Sites, the first in this series, she works with Rosamund Sholto, who travels to England to attend her sister Phoebe Britton’s funeral. Sholto soon begins to believe that Phoebe’s husband Aiden had something to do with her death. He is blindly ambitious as well as shady and Sholto wouldn’t put it past him to have committed murder. But Aiden Britton is also powerful and well-connected. So Sholto soon finds herself on the run as she tries to get the evidence she needs. She’s helped in this case by Hoyland, whose lover is a member of British Intelligence. When Hoyland proves herself if I may put it that way, she too is invited to join the intelligence community. This series strikes an interesting balance as Mann explores not just Hoyland’s skills as an archaeologist but also her skills as an intelligence agent. Hoyland has a solid enough reputation to use her archaeology credentials in her travels so her profession serves as a useful cover for her ‘other life.’

And no discussion of archaeology in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. Galloway is a Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. Because of her background and skills, she is often called to the scene when a skeleton is discovered. That’s how she meets DCI Harry Nelson, the father of her daughter Kate. Their relationship and her role as Kate’s mother form important threads through this series. But so does the professional work she does. In The House at Sea’s End for instance, she works to discover the identity of six people whose remains are found when a piece of rock crumbles into the sea. The victims do not seem to be English. What’s more, they seem to have been there since the time of World War II. As Galloway is working on this mystery, another death occurs, this time the death of a man who was writing a story on the victims. Now it’s clear that someone is desperate to make sure that no-one finds out the truth about those victims.

I know that Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is not an archaeologist. But as I’ve mentioned the new discovery of King Richard III’s body, I couldn’t leave out Tey’s The Daughter of Time. In that novel Grant goes on the trail of a very cold case. He is in hospital with a broken leg when he gets interested in a portrait of King Richard III. As he muses on the portrait it occurs to him that the king may not have been the murderer he was always thought to be. So Grant takes it upon himself to find out what really happened in the case of the Princes in the Tower.

I wish I were better schooled in archaeology but I’m not. It’s fascinating to read about though. Want more? Sure ya do. Check out this interesting post about archaeology in crime fiction by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Her top-notch blog is more than worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll anyway.


On Another Note…



I can’t help but think that the news about King Richard III would have really interested the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke. She was a real fan of The Daughter of Time too so my guess is that she’d have appreciated this interest in the king. Somehow I hope she knows…

Maxine was an ardent supporter of crime fiction and an avid reader. She was also a friend. So I’m honoured to be a part of Petrona Remembered, an exciting new blog that celebrates her passion for crime fiction. Please visit Petrona Remembered and consider contributing to it. Honestly it’s quite simple to submit your post on your favourite crime fiction and crime fiction topics. Check out the blog and help us to keep alive her love of the genre. See ya there!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elly Griffiths, Jessica Mann, Josephine Tey, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Peter Robinson, W. Michael Gear

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night Alive as You and Me*

A very interesting recent comment exchange with Maxine at Petrona got me to thinking about an unusual sort of crime fiction plot point that’s become arguably more popular lately (so thanks, Maxine, for the inspiration). In some crime novels, we actually get the point of view of the person who’s been murdered. It takes a deft hand to do that well, especially for those readers who prefer pragmatic and prosaic solutions to mysteries. But when it is done well, this plot point can give the reader a really interesting perspective and it certainly makes for innovation. It can be an effective way to tell backstory, and can pull the reader in, too.

The idea that a dead body could tell all or part of a story isn’t really new. Agatha Christie, for instance, hints at it in The Mystery of the Blue Train. In that novel, wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering plans to take the famous Blue Train to meet her lover Count Armand de la Roche. Ruth’s father Rufus Van Aldin is convinced that the Count is much more interested in Ruth’s money than in Ruth herself. In fact, ten years earlier, Van Aldin forcibly separated the two. But Ruth won’t listen to her father and prepares for her journey. One of her fellow passengers is Katherine Grey, who’s on her way to Nice for the first time after having inherited quite a lot of money. Ruth is strangled before the train reaches its destination, and Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same train, investigates. Since Katherine actually had a conversation with Ruth shortly before her death, she gets caught up in the investigation, too. At one point, Katherine has conversations with two of the suspects. As she’s sitting thinking about those conversations, she has the distinct feeling that Ruth is there, too, sitting with her and trying to say something to her. The normally-not-fanciful Katherine is struck by how real the experience is, and uses what Ruth tells her to begin putting the pieces of the puzzle together. While Poirot is officially working on the case from one direction, Katherine’s unofficially working it through from another and in the end, each in a separate way, they discover who the murderer is.

Howard Rigsby’s short story Dead Man’s Story is actually told from the point of view of a dead victim. Joe Root is a Florida Everglades game warden who’s been killed by poachers. Root tells the story of what happened to him beginning with the night he comes upon a group of poachers and confronts them. They threaten him but Root refuses to back down. The poachers make good on their threat and kill Root, thinking that will solve their problem. But Root’s body keeps turning up, and no matter what the poachers do, they don’t seem able to get rid of it. In reality, natural forces and certain coincidences prevent the body from disappearing. But the poachers don’t know that, and believe that Root keeps coming back deliberately. This frightens and disturbs them; at the same time you could almost say it’s Root’s way of taking revenge. In the end, a colleague of Root’s is able to track the poachers and connect them with Root’s murder.

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is also told from the point of view of a dead victim. This time it’s fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon. Susie tells the story of how one December afternoon, she is walking home from school when her neighbour George Harvey persuades her to take a look at an underground shelter he’s built. Once he’s trapped her there, he rapes and kills her, removing nearly all the body parts. Susie watches from her personal heaven as it becomes clear to her family that she has disappeared. Then, a neighbour’s dog finds the bone from one of Susie’s elbows, and Detective Len Feneman, who’s been assigned to the case, begins to investigate it as a homicide rather than a missing person case. Throughout the novel, two plot threads unfold. One is Susie’s process of coming to terms with the fact that she is dead and can’t take that back. The other is what happens to Susie’s family as a result of her murder. Susie watches as her parents’ marriage comes apart and her brother Buckley and sister Lindsey are devastated by her loss.

In Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant, readers are introduced to archaeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. They join forces to investigate when Stewart and his dig team unexpectedly discover the ancient remains of eight women who’ve apparently been murdered. Because the site is on Native American land, the Pueblo nation sends Hail Walking Hawk to help ensure that sacred ground is not desecrated. This novel moves back and forth in time between the present day, in which Stewart, Cole, Hail Walking Hawk and the dig team investigate, and the 13th Century, when the murders occurred. In several places, it’s clear that Hail Walking Hawk has a deep connection to the ancient community and to the victims whose remains are uncovered. While we don’t actually “hear” what the dead say to Walking Hawk, we know that she does hear them. It makes for a fascinating sub-plot in this novel.

In Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, we learn about the deaths of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her eighteen-year-old boyfriend Simon Kyrö. One October day, the two go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi to explore the ruins of a plane that went down in that lake during World War II. Although the lake’s surface is frozen, they’ve cut a hole in the ice to make their dive. While they’re under the water, someone unfastens the safety line they’ve tied to a couple of crossed wooden planks. Then, that someone covers the hole and traps both young people beneath the ice, killing them. The following spring, Wilma’s body surfaces and the police begin an investigation into the deaths. Wilma herself tells the story of the deaths, so we know what happened to the young people, although we don’t know (because she doesn’t know) who committed the murders. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson, one of Larsson’s sleuths, is working as a prosecutor in Kiruna. Lately she’s been haunted by dreams in which a shadowy figure – a ghost, really – appears, and we learn that Wilma is trying to help in the investigation of her own murder. Martinsson seems to have a deep connection with Wilma, although it’s not a stereotypical case of “ghost appears and talks to a person.” Martinsson works with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, who’s investigating Wilma’s death, to find out who the killer is. As it turns out, the mystery is connected with another, older mystery: possible collaboration between some of the locals and the German Wermacht during World War II.

And then there’s Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, in which Inspector Malin Fors and her team investigate the murder of an unidentified obese man whose body is found hanging from an oak tree outside Linkoping, in Sweden. As the story moves on, we hear plenty from the dead man himself, who describes the way in which he’s killed, even though he doesn’t tell us who the killer is. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was just too good an example not to mention it.

It can make for a very interesting thread through a story when we get to hear from the dead victim. And yet, it’s not for everyone. For some readers, that plot point is too “out there.” And even for those who don’t mind it from that point of view, it does take a skilled hand to do it well. But what’s your point of view? Have you read novels where we get the dead person’s point of view? If you have, did that plot point work for you? If you’re a writer, have you ever considered moving “outside the lines” that way?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Hill, originally written as a poem by Alfred Hayes and adapted for music by Earl Robinson. The most famous version of this song is probably Joan Baez’ recording of it.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice Sebold, Åsa Larsson, Howard Rigsby, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Mons Kallentoft, W. Michael Gear

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is very close to the end of our tour! We’re already at our 22nd stop – the letter “V.” I’ve been really enjoying the chance to check out some new-to-me reading, visit other book bloggers and share what I read. Thanks, as ever, to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, who’s been keeping all of us together on our dangerous trip. My contribution for this week’s tour stop is Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant. Published in 1999, it’s the first of the three books in their Anasazi series.

The novel begins with a prologue in which Ash Girl, a 13th Century Anasazi woman, is frantically seeking help for her young son, who’s desperately ill. Instead of getting the help she needs, though, she has a terrifying encounter. Then, the action shifts to the modern era. William “Dusty” Stewart is an archaeologist who’s just received the clearance he needs to begin an excavation of the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. Stewart is hoping to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in the area centuries ago and is eager to begin his work. He and his team start the excavation under the supervision of Park Ranger Maggie “Magpie” Walking Hawk and her aunt Hail Walking Hawk. Hail is a member of the Pueblo Nation who’s been sent to ensure that the archeologists don’t desecrate sacred ground. Everyone gets settled into the routine of planning and beginning the dig. Then, they make a grim and unexpected discovery: the remains of eight women who seem to have been placed in a mass grave. Now the excavation has to stop until the deaths can be investigated – no easy task, since the bodies were found on sacred ground and the remains are ancient.

Halifax-based forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole is called in to help in the investigation. She’s worked with Stewart before and although she respects his knowledge of archaeology, the two do not see the world in the same way, and dislike each other. Still, she’s fascinated by the task and sets to work to find out what happened to these women. For its part, the archaeology team searches through the dig to find out more about the culture from which these women came.

At the same time as the modern-day investigation is going on, we also follow a parallel investigation. 13th-Century Anasazi War Chief Browser is carrying out the heartbreaking task of burying his young son. As he and his people are completing the ritual, they discover a body in the burial pit that had been intended for his son. And then there’s another attack. And more deaths. It looks very much as though some evil force is loose among the Anasazi, and Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin begin to search for answers. As this 13th Century team try to make sense of what’s happening, the modern day archaeology team work with Cole to try to find out the truth about the remains they’ve found. In the end, each team discovers the truth in its own way.

One of the important elements in this novel is the use of parallel timelines and perspectives and parallel investigations. The two stories alternate and tell of very different groups of people who are looking for answers. Even the writing style changes slightly depending on which story is being told. Those style changes are just one way in which the Gears ensure that the reader isn’t confused as to which story is being told at any given moment. The effect (at least for me) is that we look at the same murders from different perspectives. We also get a look at the murderer’s perspective; that perspective is given in italics so it, too, is easy to set apart. That said, though, readers who dislike multiple timelines and perspectives may find this aspect of the book a stumbling block. To be honest, I didn’t find it to be a problem.

Another element that ties this novel together is what we learn about archaeology, anthropology and the Anasazi people. The authors are both archaeologists and they put their scientific expertise and their backgrounds to effective use in this novel. That gives a real sense of authenticity to the story as we follow the modern dig team. The Gears also have a background in ancient history and anthropology, and that knowledge is obvious, too. We learn a great deal about Anasazi culture and lifestyle, and that adds to the 13th-Century-based plot line. There’s also a real flavour of the science involved in forensic anthropology and in archeology. What’s refreshing about this is that the scientific processes of looking for answers are portrayed realistically. Science is not always glamourous work; it’s painstaking and one doesn’t get the answers magically. That day-to-day aspect of science is shown honestly.

The major characters are also important elements in this novel. Stewart and Cole are both complex people. Each has been wounded by life, although in different ways, and it affects the way they interact with each other and with the world. As their backstories slowly unfold, we learn what’s happened to them and it adds to their depth. It’s also worth noting that their relationship is not a “typical” boy-meets-girl-they-hate-each-other-and-then-fall-in-love story. Stewart and Cole are attracted to each other, but mostly, they engage each other intellectually. They spar on many levels, but they depend on each other. Each brings some important skills and knowledge to the task at hand. As they work together and learn more about each other, they also end up finding some measure of personal healing. In the parallel, 13th Century story, the characters of Browser and Catkin are also well-drawn and interesting. Especially worth noting is that they’re not thinly-disguised versions of Stewart and Cole, only in ancient times. Instead, they’re unique characters. Browser is devastated by his personal losses, and has his own “baggage.” Yet, he isn’t a stereotypical “tormented sleuth.” For her part, Catkin is smart, skilled and extremely observant. She understands Browser possibly better than anyone else does, and yet again, their relationship is not stereotypical. They aren’t really lovers, but they are much more than friends.

There are also some interesting philosophical issues raised in this novel. One of them, for instance, is the uneasy relationship between scientific and philosophical/spiritual approaches to knowledge. Cole is a scientist and looks for scientific truths. Stewart is “tuned in” to the more spiritual/philosophical ways of viewing the world. Although each understands the other’s view, each feels the other is lacking. As the events in the story unfold, both approaches to looking at the world turn out to be important.

The story takes place in the Sonoran Desert of New Mexico, and the Gears place the reader unmistakeably there:


“Dusty gazed across the fire pit, between two tents, and down the length of canyon to the east. The cliffs wavered like golden phantoms. Not a single cloud adorned the pale blue sky, which meant there was no relief in sight. Without an afternoon thundershower, the heat would remain high well into the evening.”


The harshly beautiful country and the extreme temperatures add to the story as both groups of people search for the key to the mystery.

The mystery itself is almost less important than the rest of the novel. The deaths turn out to be the work of someone with an unusual kind of motive and the stories do focus on that mystery. But as much as telling a mystery story, the Gears tell the stories of the characters in both time frames and of the Anasazi culture. But what’s your view? Have you read The Visitant? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Filed under Kathleen O'Neal Gear, The Visitant, W. Michael Gear

>They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot*

> Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Earth Day, originally established in 1970 as part of an environmental movement. It’s a very good thing to be respectful of the earth and of nature for many reasons. As crime fiction shows us, nature is a force to be reckoned with; those who don’t respect it and try to bend nature to their wills often find out that the earth and nature are much stronger than they imagined. In the end, those who ignore the power of natural forces often end up regretting it.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels to London on the world famous Orient Express. One of his fellow passengers is Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman. On the second night of the journey, a sudden snowstorm strands the train. Then, Ratchett is stabbed to death. M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits and a friend of Poirot’s, asks Poirot to investigate the murder and Poirot agrees. He begins to ask questions and it’s not long before he uncovers Ratchett’s background and in doing so, finds out the motive for the murder. Once Poirot discovers that motive, he’s able to figure out which of Ratchett’s fellow travellers murdered him. One of the advantages that Poirot has is that the murderer didn’t take the bitter Eastern European winter weather into account. There were no plans for what to do if there was a snowstorm and that fact makes it easier for Poirot to sort out the real clues from the “red herrings” in this case.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter unexpectedly spend New Year’s Eve in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. While they’re there, Wimsey uses his skills as a bell-ringer to help when one of the church’s regular change-ringers is too ill to ring his bell. The next day, Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, dies of influenza and is duly buried. A few months later, her husband dies, too. When the gravediggers open Lady Thorpe’s grave to bury her husband beside her, they find another corpse is already there. Reverend Theodore Venables, Vicar of St. Paul, writes to Wimsey, asking him to investigate, and Wimsey returns to the village to help find out who the dead man is and how his body got into Lady Thorpe’s grave. He discovers that this death is related to a long-ago theft, a missing emerald necklace and a case of hidden identity. In an interesting sub-plot to this novel, a new Wash Cut has been planned to manage the water and drainage system in the area. There’s nothing really wrong with the current system of water management, but the goal is bring a steadier supply of water to the area. So, despite warnings that the new Wash Cut is neither necessary nor desirable, the project is carried out. That attempt to re-balance nature backfires tragically towards the end of the novel when a terrible spring storm breaks the local sluice gates and floods the region.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, a group of thieves led by Mike Daniels makes elaborate plans to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. Their scheme is to dig a tunnel using the local sewer system which, in turn, will give them underground access to the bank. To put their plan into action, Daniels knows the team will need some expertise, so he enlists Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s desperate for money, to join the group. Booker agrees and the plans are laid in place. The day of the bank robbery dawns bright and clear and the men think that their scheme will go smoothly and it does at first. Then, a sudden storm springs up and floods the tunnel and sewers, with tragic results. What’s interesting about this is that Daniels even considers that possibility, but in the end decides to go through with the robbery. It’s a clear reminder that nature follows its own rules.

The balance of nature is also an important theme in Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi trilogy. Beginning with The Visitant, the series is the story of archaeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. The two begin working together when Stewart and his team find eight sets of ancient remains in an unexpected place. Cole is called in to help get to the truth about what happened to the victims and how their bodies got to the site where they’re found. Parts of the series take place during a modern-day timeline, and we follow Stewart, Cole and their team as they use forensic and archaeological evidence to piece together what happened. Parts of the series take place during the 13th Century; during those parts of the series, we follow Anisazi war chief Browser and his deputy and friend Catkin as they investigate the same mysteries. In time, other remains are found and both the modern-day research team and the 13th Century team discover that the Anisazi people have made tragic mistakes in the way they manage their resources. Those mistakes have cascading effects, including some of the deaths that both teams investigate.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, marine biologist Chaz Perrone gets an object lesson in what happens when nature is not respected. He’s a shady operator who actually dislikes nature and has little respect for natural forces. In fact, he only became a marine biologist through a series of ironic events and is stuck in a job he dislikes. Then, Perrone discovers a way to alter water testing records so that water samples drawn from the Florida Everglades test “clean,” even when they are not. This proves to be very beneficial to Perrone’s new employer Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut. Hammernut owns, among other things, a successful commercial agricultural business that is responsible for a lot of toxic waste being poured into the Everglades. Perrone’s strategy “covers” Hammernut’s pollution, and for a while, all’s well. Then, Perrone begins to fear that his wife Joey has tumbled onto his scheme. So he arranges a cruise for the two of them, telling Joey that it’s an anniversary gift. One night, he pushes Joey overboard, assuming that she’ll drown and his secret will be safe. That’s not what happens, though; Joey is a former champion swimmer and manages to stay alive long enough to be rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for the Florida Attorney General’s office. Together, the two of them concoct a plan to make Chaz Perrone believe that someone saw him push his wife overboard and is now going to blackmail him. Their strategy makes Perrone increasingly nervous, and Hammernut increasingly concerned about Perrone’s dependability. Now, Perrone up against threats from Hammernut, the person he thinks is blackmailing him, and the police, who suspect him of Joey’s murder. In a fitting end, though, you could say that really, Mother Nature has the final say in what happens to Chaz Perrone.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road also raises issues of natural forces and their balance. Emily Tempest has just accepted a job as an Aboriginal Community Police officer. On her first day on the job, she and her team are called to the scene of a murder at the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse. Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been killed and his body found in his shack. Also found in Ozolins’ shack is a very drunk John “Wireless” Petherbridge. The two had had a terrible public argument hours before, so Wireless is immediately the most likely suspect. Tempest isn’t so sure of that, but her new boss Bruce Cockburn tells her to stay aw ay from the case. That doesn’t stop Tempest, though, and she begins to investigate. What she discovers is that Doc had been conducting research on a groundbreaking theory about geologic evolution. In the process, he made another discovery that someone does not want made public. He was killed because of his discovery about what has happened and is happening to the earth, and when Tempest finds that out, she starts on the path that leads her to the killer. Along the way, she gets valuable guidance from several people who are very “tuned in” to the earth’s balance.

As we can see just from a quick look at some crime fiction, nature is a powerful force. So be kind to the planet; you never know what could happen if you aren’t….. After all, to use the words of an old U.S. television ad, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Dorothy Sayers, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Robert Pollock, W. Michael Gear