All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Environmental crimes in exotic locations

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Environmentalists are supposed to be serious folks, purpose driven, with no time for frivolities.

That may be true for some – movement leaders, hairshirt prophets.  But for most of us, well, no.  We’re as frivolous as anybody else.

I like to read crime novels – so shoot me!  Guaranteed to waste time, no redeeming value as “great literature” (something to brag about and sound sooooo cultured), and really dangerous as a method of work avoidance, especially if you have a deadline looming (like now, for me – but that’s a different story).  A good crime story is comfort food for the brain.

But sometimes there is something jarring in these novels, when the author gets a detail about the environment, or environmentalists, completely wrong.  This is when the believability of the story is destroyed, and as a readeer I feel I’ve been taken for a ride by a lazy writer.  So much for comfort food – someone has replaced my mozzarella with processed cheese slices.  Ick.

So I thought I’d mention two recent reads that I’ve come across, and that are totally satisfying.  They both feature an environmental crime – some instance of illegal dumping – and portray it quite well.  The main story has to do with murders, committed to cover tracks, not with the environmental degradation; but the environment is always present, in the background, and that presence helps in rooting the stories in reality.

One of the books is Donna Leon’s Death in a Strange Country (1993).  Leon is an American writer living in Venice (Italy, not California!) and this is where she sets all her stories.  The body of an American is found floating in a canal.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is a murder, not an accident; and that the murder has been cleverly disguised to pass for the result of a random mugging.  Inspector Brunetti is then confronted with a second murder, apparently unrelated; but any reader of crime novels knows the formula: there is a conspiracy, and in this case murders are committed by powerful criminals connected with influencial politicians to cover up lucrative toxic waste dumping.  (And that is well researched: little science presented, but the stubborn skin rashes and fatigue produced in kids that come in contact is well portrayed.)  Well researched and utterly believable.  A reviewer has compared Brunetti to Simenon’s Maigret: a charismatic, caring character used a vehicle to describe Venitian society.  A gem of a book.

The other one, the 2009 Don’t Cry, Tai Lake is from a Chinese American author, Qiu Xialong, who sets his stories in 80s and 90s China.  Inspector Chen, on holidays at beautiful Tai Lake, becomes unofficially involved in a murder investigation.  The top boss of a chemical state firm stood to make millions after listing the company on the nascent Chinese stock exchange – but his lifeless body is found on the eve of doing so.  Inspector Chen discovers unsettling clues that contradict the official story, and has to dodge powerful politicos as the extent to which the company itself has dodged regulations and polluted the lake become clear.  Beautifully crafted, and an great portrait of the transition era, the book is lot of fun.

The surprise is that it (and its author) aren’t better known.  My sister introduced me to this author, and my copy is in French, proudly displacing a sticker “Prix du Meilleur Polar 2011” (best crime novel 2011).  None of the second hand book dealers I asked had ever heard of him – I guess he made it big in translation, but not in the original English.  It’s a shame – it really deserves a wide readership.  (And, yes, Xialong gets the environmental issue right, and thankfully he doesn’t dwell on it.) Another great book.


Written by enviropaul

October 21, 2011 at 11:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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