Read Emily Littlejohn's guest post about using weather events to enhance setting, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her second Detective Gemma Monroe novel, A Season to Lie!
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
Though it is much parodied and oft-mocked, aspiring mystery writers would do well to study the opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. Why? Because it works. It’s instantly relatable. With just seven words, the reader immediately understands the setting and can imagine the scene.
Weather is a great equalizer in fiction. Consider a further example:
The detective chased the man, barely conscious of the slick street, unfazed by the torrential summer downpour driving pedestrians and bicyclists to take cover. In minutes the rain ceased. The steamy July swelter returned and still the two men ran.
The story’s location could be anywhere, from Los Angeles to Beijing to Mumbai. It is the weather—the rain, the humidity—that is familiar. The reader feels the oppressiveness of the heat, the wetness of the downpour.
From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mist-covered moors to the cyclone in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, weather sets the stage for novels. Weather events are uncontrollable. We can predict them and experience them. We can study them until the cows come home, but we cannot control them. And there’s something mysterious about that lack of control—something romantic, suspenseful.
Mystery writers especially have a long tradition of presenting dark, bleak weather as an omnipresent character in their novels. Part of the enjoyment of a good mystery is imagining yourself beside the hero, stalking the villain, moving about in the shadows.
Two books that take advantage of winter’s chill are Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman and John Sandford’s Winter Prey. In The Snowman—the seventh in Nesbo’s Norwegian series—Detective Harry Hole tracks a serial killer who inexplicably leaves a unique calling card: a snowman, made from the first snow of the season. Half a world away, Winter Prey takes us to the frozen northern woods of Wisconsin where lawman Lucas Davenport hunts the Iceman, a vicious killer who favors a machete and is likely a local. This is the fifth book in Sandford’s Prey series, and both the mystery and the frigid environment deliver plenty of chills. And—no kidding—Davenport meets up with an intriguing and attractive doctor by the name of … wait for it … Weather Karkinnen.
But perhaps glistening white snow splattered with fresh scarlet blood isn’t appealing. If instead you’re looking for mysteries set in warmer climes, consider The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke and Stormy Weather by Carl Hiassen. Both stories take place in the immediate aftermath of crippling hurricanes, and you’ll find little to no mention of snowmen and blizzards.
Burke’s novel—the 16th in the excellent Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux series—finds Robicheaux deployed from New Iberia to the bleak, desperate reality that is post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. The streets are flooded. The destruction is devastating. And everyone—crooks, priests, and the common folk in between—is just trying to survive. This is not a light book; the crimes are as horrific as the living conditions. For a real treat, listen to the audiobook narrated by the incomparable Will Patton. From the first words, his melodious voice plants you firmly in Louisiana and keeps you there for the duration of the story.
Finally, if you’re looking for lighter fare, check out Carl Hiassen’s Stormy Weather—the third in his Skink series. Hiassen takes us to South Florida where Hurricane Andrew has left things in a mess. Hiassen’s appeal is simple: his bad guys are bad, his good guys are good, and when the dust has cleared, each gets what’s coming to them. You’ll laugh out loud at his vivid descriptions and zany characters. Escaped zoo animals, unexpected love affairs, and double- and triple-crosses round out the plot.
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Emily Littlejohn is the author of the Detective Gemma Monroe mysteries series, set in the fictional town of Cedar Valley, Colorado. Her first novel, Inherit the Bones, received critical acclaim and was a Colorado Book Award Finalist. The second in the series, A Season to Lie, will be released November 14th, 2017.