Right now, the part of California where I live is going through a heat wave (don’t tell me there’s no such thing as climate change!). People who have air conditioning are using it (I don’t want to think about my electricity bill…), and those who don’t are using fans or whatever other strategies they can to say cool. And children are joyfully soaking themselves and each other with hoses and squirt guns.
There’s an underlying tension when there’s a heat wave. Too much heat makes a person miserable, and can bring on headaches, cramps, and other physical problems. And under that sort of stress, even little things like not finding a parking spot can loom large. So there’s sometimes heat-related conflict. It’s unpleasant at best in real life, but it can add some interesting suspense to a crime novel. Sometimes ‘the heat drove me crazy’ is even an explanation for murder.
Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia takes place in a hot climate about four hours from Baghdad. An archaeological expedition team led by Dr. Eric Leidner is on a dig, and is hoping to make some important finds. This season, Leidner’s wife, Louise, has come along, and it’s turning out to be a mistake. While she respects her husband’s profession, she herself is not a passionate archaeologist. She’s hasn’t really hit it off with the other members of the dig team, either. She can be kind and even charming when she wants, but she’s just as often rude and hurtful. Needless to say, there’s tension in the group. Matters come to a head when Louise starts seeing faces at her window, and hearing hands tapping at it. Her fears become problematic enough that Leidner hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to look after his wife. Then, one afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and he is persuaded to investigate. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the way the team and the locals have adjusted to the extreme heat. They start work very early and take long rests in the afternoon. And the expedition house is built to take advantage of every bit of shade and cool breeze possible. The heat itself is not the reason for the murder. But it plays a role in the novel.
Heat plays an important role ion Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, too. The first in the 87th Precinct series, Cop Hater introduces detective Steve Carella. He and his teammates investigate the murders of two police officers. At first, it looks as though someone has a vendetta against the police. But that’s not really the explanation, and Carella and his team have to look for another connection between the officers in order to find out who the killer is. The story takes place during an intense heat wave, where everyone who can get out of the city does so, and those who can’t are miserable. The heat makes everyone a little crazy. In fact, at one point in the novel, Carella attends a police lineup during which he hears the confession of one Virginia Pritchett, who’s been accused of murdering her husband with a hatchet. She explains that the murder stemmed from an argument that had spiraled out of control, mostly due to the heat:
‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.’
If you’ve ever been stuck in a city apartment during a heat wave, and had no air conditioning, you’ll understand that feeling of pent-up anger.
Zoë Ferraris’ series features Palestinian-born tracker Nayir ash-Sharqi and forensic scientist Katya Hijazi. The novels are set in Saudi Arabia, where the intense heat of, especially, summer, can be fatal. Everyone knows what the heat is like, and people take precautions and arrange their lives to stay as cool as possible. Shopping is done in the morning or the evening, and homes are constructed so as to take maximum advantage of cooler building materials, air circulation, and so on. The heat impacts the way people do their jobs, too, including the police. For instance, in Kingdom of Strangers, Lieutenant Colonel Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is investigating the murder of a young woman whose body was discovered by the side of a road.
‘Ibrahim glanced at his watch: 1:30pm. If they were lucky, they could be done before the most infernal hours of the day…The heat was already clipping his thoughts like an impatient listener.
It turns out that Zahrani has more to deal with than just one body. Other bodies are discovered in what turns out to be a mass grave. As if that’s not enough, Zahrani’s mistress has disappeared. He can’t do anything about it himself, since that would entail revealing that he is having an affair. Since adultery is punishable by death, Zahrani asks Katya to look into the matter, as she is linked to the police department. It turns out that this case gets to some dark, ugly things happening in the area.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano lives and works in Sicily. It’s a beautiful place, but it can get very, very hot at times. In August Heat, for instance, Montalbano had originally planned to take some time away and get a house by the sea for him and his lover, Livia. Due to a scheduling problem, that didn’t go as planned, and he’s stuck in Vigàta in the sweltering heat. Needless to say, Livia’s not happy about it:
‘…the only one who’s going to be alone is me…while you’re spending your days and maybe even your nights at the station, working on the latest murder.’
Here is Montalbano’s response:
‘Come on, Livia, it’s August. With this kind of heat, even the killers down here wait until autumn.’
That doesn’t mean Montalbano’s going to have an easy summer, though. An eerie discovery is made at the beach house where friends of Livia are staying, and Montalbano gets drawn into a case involving some dark secrets and history. And all this while coping with a heat wave.
And then there’s Jane Harper’s The Dry. In it, Australia Federal Police officer Aaron Falk returns to his hometown of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke. You might say that Falk owes Luke at least that much, since Luke was the only one who stood by him years earlier when he was accused of committing a murder. The town is in the midst of an intense heat wave and a serious drought, so everyone’s already on edge. Falk’s return doesn’t help matters, and things get even worse when he begins to suspect that there’s more to his friend’s death than it seems. It turns out that there are a lot of old sins and dark secrets in the town.
Heat waves can be deadly, and even when they’re not, they can make life absolutely miserable. But they can also add an interesting level of tension – even a sub-plot – to a novel. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from America’s Horse With No Name.
12 thoughts on “The Heat Was Hot and the Ground Was Dry*”
I always though McBain captured the tensions of an overheated city quite brilliantly! (and it’s pretty bad in rural England at the moment too….)
I’ve heard about the heat in England, KBR. I hope it eases up – it’s miserable, isn’t it? And I agree about McBain; he did a fabulous job of capturing that tension. It’s part of what makes his work so compelling.
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Happily we very rarely get heatwaves that last for more than few days, and even then our top temperatures would seem pretty mild to you! I don’t know how people function in extended heat – I find it utterly enervating. Even reading about it can make me feel stressed – The Dry is a great example of that, as is her later one, The Lost Man, where the temperatures were so awful, indeed lethal, I was left wondering why anyone would ever choose to live there at all. A slightly cooler heatwave features in Peter May’s Cast Iron – one of the Enzo series – when a heatwave in the west of France causes a lake to partially dry up, revealing a skeleton of someone who had been murdered and dumped in the lake years before.
I don’t care much for extended heatwaves either, FictionFan. ‘Enervating’ really is exactly the right word for the impact on me, too. It does wear one down, doesn’t it?
Thanks for mentioning both The Lost Man and Cast Iron. It’s really hard to convey a sense of surroundings, weather, and so on, without overburdening a story with details, but May and Harper do that very well. You really feel what it’s like in those stories, and I think it adds to the tension. And you’ve got a point: it makes a person wonder why anyone would live in a climate like that. And yet, people do…
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Margot: If extreme heat produces extreme stress does extreme cold mean no stress. Not surprisingly in crime fiction extreme cold has little impact on murder. Were it otherwise we would barely have any time during the year for murder in Canada. The mysteries of Scott Young featuring Matteesie Kitologitak both take place during the long Arctic winter. The murderers were undeterred by the cold.
You have a well-taken point, Bill. And I’m glad you mentioned Scott Young’s books. They’re well-written, and they really do depict what life is like during the Arctic winter. And it’s true that cold doesn’t deter a murderer. Some of Stan Jones’ Nathan Active novels show the same thing. And there are others, too, of course. I think that’s interesting.
Margot, you come up with the most unusual topics. Really enjoyed this post. Cannot think of an example right now but totally agree with that woman in Cop-Hater.
Thank you, Neeru. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that you like what you find here. You’re right too; that woman in Cop Hater makes a very good point…
I remember the heat in Cop Hater and The Dry. It does seem to play an important part in Australian crime fiction, particulalry with an Outback setting. Similarly some parts of the US as well…. Arizona, Texas etc. The climate can almost be a character in itself.
You make a well-taken point, Col. Sometimes that heat does almost seem like a character, and you see it in books set in the US desert Southwest, the Outback, and other places. It reminds of Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels, that take place in the Outback; the heat is there, too…
Ah, I also read one recently which was set in the UK in 1976. This was a record breaking year for heat in the UK, before the recent ones at least – Terry Melia’s Tales from the Greenhills.
Thanks, Col. That’s a book I’m not familiar with, so it’d be good for me to check it out. I think it’s interesting how some years are so memorable for the heat (or, for the matter of that, the cold).