The Weather of Mysteries, the Mysteries of Weather

I grew up on mysteries, both televised and in book form. Though I mostly ignored the Nancy Drew series (part of every preteen girl’s book shelf?), by the time I finished high school, I’d been steeped in Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I had vague images of the little English village where Miss Jane Marple solved murders. The Orient Express and a tour boat on the Nile seemed exotic and thrilling places for sleuth Hercule Poirot to twirl his mustache and exercise his little gray cells. Though I didn’t expect Perry Mason ever to lose a case, I enjoyed weekly TV evenings watching Mason and prosecutor Hamilton Burger match wits in courtroom dramas.  

Once I left my family home and moved around the country and overseas, my personal library went through several changes.  Lately, it’s been downsized, but I’m still within range of a public or university library. I’ve consistently gravitated toward the mystery section. Over time, my tastes have evolved. I’ve concentrated more often on women novelists who feature women protagonists and who define their settings in meticulous detail, often including the weather. 

At the suggestion of a friend, I began reading the Susan Wittig Albert series about the fictional Texas hill town of Pecan Springs. Her “cozy mystery” part-time detective and full-time herb and plant store owner/operator China Bayles tapped into a love of landscape that had been dormant in me for a while.   

Not long after I moved to North Carolina in 2007, I came across a holiday story by local author Margaret Maron. Before long, I’d read everything I could find by this self-taught writer, whose fictional East Carolina milieu of Colleton County, presided over by bootlegger’s daughter Judge Deborah Knott, sometimes seemed intriguingly, uncomfortably real. I especially remember Storm Track, a 2000 murder mystery with an Atlantic hurricane built into the plot. 

Now I’m a recent transplant to southern California, trying to find my way in this semi-desert climate partially filled with retirees like me. No hurricanes here. Muted seasonal changes so far. (Luckily) no significant earthquakes since our move. The other bane of this area is wildfires. Locals with longer pedigrees than mine have told me scary stories of past area fires and evacuations. This year’s outbreaks have already set records for size and ferocity.  Therefore, I was only a little surprised when a summer library visit produced a wildfire mystery, Martha C. Lawrence’s Ashes of Aries. The plot was a tad out of my usual range, but the description of a Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood in flames was almost too vivid. 

Lately lots of pundits have spent lots of print and air time expounding on a changing climate that is likely to include an increase in drastic weather events, some unpredicted.  I’ve found a blog post, but not yet an Albert novel about the great freeze-up of February, 2021, when much of Texas discovered the limited reliability of its electric grid under winter stress. I’m sure there are other novels with wildfires, others with hurricanes. Our reality may be approaching or exceeding the weather limits of popular mystery fiction. 

It seems as if the strides made in the past century or so toward being able to predict weather more consistently and reliably are getting undercut. Hurricane predictors talk about “rapid intensification.” States and regions in the U.S. West declare drought emergencies. They try to evolve contingency water resource plans on the fly. Wells run dry. Power grids fail or are shut down to reduce the chance of spark-ignited wildfires.  

It makes sense for those of us who can to get more serious about resource conservation. Per author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his recent non-fiction book We are the Weather, our personal choices do have an impact: we need to eat less meat, do less driving, travel less by air, have fewer children. For me, the child part is over and done, but I’m working on the remaining three issues. 

Once, in the few months I’ve lived in San Diego, I experienced an unexpected dividend of our less predictable weather: a brief but intense rainbow.   

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