All things environmental

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

Environment and crime novels (2)

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Hallowe'en crime scene. Maybe.

When he arrived at the site, Trevor found he had to wait until the police had cleared up the demonstrators before he could start work.  There were five left, all sitting cross-legged in the field.  Environmentalists.  One was a little grey-haired old lady.  Ought to be ashamed of herself, Trevor thought, a woman of her age squatting down on the grass with a bunch of bloody Marxist homosexual tree-huggers.”

So starts Peter Robinson’s 2003 Close to Home novel.  Environmental tropes crop up everywhere in crime stories, much to my delight.  This particular story is not about the environment or any dastardly pollution event, but it starts this way.  And it’s not the only crime novel to use the environment this way.  Why should that be?

I find that good crime writers are acutely aware of the environment where they set their stories; in fact, poor descritions of surroundings, absent weather, leaves stories abstract and hollow.  This may not be such a problem in other genres – but atmosphere is crucial in crime stories, just like shadows are needed in film noir.  Take another of Robinson’s stories, In a dry season (1999).  An unusually dry summer has emptied a reservoir, uncovering an abandoned, submerged village…and a decades-old crime scene.

Not that a change in the environment, like a drought, is a necessary device for a murder plot.  But it helps with its credibility.  Crime novels are set in ordinary surroundings, and everything is pretty mundane if it weren’t for this crime – and a depiction of the environment is necessary, just as talking about the weather is a must in banal conversation.

Ian Rankin’s stories have the same rainy, run-down environment as Robinson’s; both are set in Great Britain (Robinson’s in Yorkshire, Rankin in Scotland), and both main characters have a fondness for Laphroaig scotch.  Rankin’s 1997 Black and Blue revolves around an oil spill off the Scottish coast, a cover-up, environmentalists dragged off an offshore platform occupation (and a murder, of course).  All very believably described, in all its grit and strife.  But some of the best writing comes when inspector Rebus, the main character, lands in Shetland looking for a recluse environmentalist with suspicious activities:

It was an extraordinary place.  The feel of his feet on the grass wasn’t like walking across lawn or field; it was like he was the first person ever to walk there.

This beautiful piece of writing could grace any environmental anthology – and anchors the whole search for the motivations of the key characters.  The Scotish wilderness is special, and brings meaning to those who care to feel it.

This is why I think crime novels make fine reading for environmentalists: crime writers get the environment.  They have to, for their stories to make sense.

I can’t close without a mention of Jules Maigret, my favourite inspector born from the pen of George Simenon.  His stories, written from the 30’s to the 50’s, do not feature environmentalism – but the environment, the mood of a place, the Paris of winter drizzle and fog, or of sudden lilac blooms in the sun, is pervasive, is everywhere.  There are even comments about urban design, this one from Maigret’s wife, known only as “madame Maigret”:

A bit later, as they sat down at the outdoor terrace of a cafe, Place de la Bastille, without even switching neighbourhoods, madame Maigret remarked: “I wonder how they ever manage, in London or New York…” “What do you mean?” “Well, I hear that they don’t have outdoor terraces…”  (Maigret s’amuse, 1957).

…Ah, Paris!



Written by enviropaul

October 26, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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