That’s Great, It Starts With an Earthquake*

As this is posted, this week marks 44 years since the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island. For those of you who don’t know about this/don’t remember it, a combination of faulty technology/mechanical failures and inadequate preparation caused a partial meltdown at one of the nuclear reactors on the facility. There was real fear that there might be a complete meltdown, which would have had devastating consequences. Trust me. I grew up not very far from Three Mile Island. Looking back, the plans people made in the event of disaster would not have succeeded. But I can attest that there was a great deal of deep-seated fear that the world as we’d known it was about to end. We were all very, very fortunate that a total disaster was averted.

That fear, and the tension that goes with it, are certainly there in real-life scares like the one at Three Mile Island. That same fear can play an interesting role in crime novels, too, and can add a great deal to the suspense of a story. It impacts characters’ choices, too, and sometimes their personalities.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad features a secret meeting of a group of superpowers. The main concern at this meeting is the development of a secret superweapon. The members of the group don’t know the nature of the weapon, but they do know it could pose a disastrous threat if it’s real. The only invitee who does know more about the weapon, and could tell the group about it, is a British agent named Carmichael. But, the shadowy enemy group that developed the weapon has every interest in not letting any information about it get into the wrong hands. Still, it’s hoped that Carmichael can get to the meeting. As it turns out, he doesn’t. He turns up badly  wounded in the hotel room of an adventurous young woman named Victoria Jones. Before he can say much, though, he dies, and it’s left to Victoria to make sense of his cryptic last words. This isn’t the only story, either, in which Christie explores people’s fear of worldwide catastrophes (right, fans of Passenger to Frankfurt?).

As Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End begins, a group of anti-nuclear protestors has gathered in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. They are convinced that the continued use of nuclear power for any purpose will end in world disaster and are determined to stop any more nuclear development. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is not too pleased about the group’s presence, because he knows that protests and demonstrations mean extra work, greater risk of trouble, and stress. Sure enough, the demonstration starts to turn ugly, with several of the protestors being arrested. Then, to make matters worse, Police Constable PC Edwin Gill is stabbed in the neck. Banks’ boss, Richard ‘Dirty Dick’ Burgess, wants Banks to arrest one of the demonstrators, as he is convinced that’s the explanation for the murder. But Banks isn’t so sure. He’s got to go up against his boss, the demonstrators, and the killer, to find out who murdered Gill and why.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in a dystopic near-future. Climate change has caused a number of disasters, and millions of climate refugees have poured in to Finland, many of them to Helsinki. The city is in near anarchy, as the police don’t have the staffing or money to protect the city. In some cases, even basic services are threatened, and people don’t even want to do ‘normal’ things, such as shop or go out to eat. Against this backdrop, a writer named Tapani Lehtinen gets worried about his wife Johanna. She’s a journalist who frequently is away for a day or so (sometimes more) to do her job. But she always gets in touch at least once every twenty-four hours when she’s following a story. She hasn’t been in touch in a few days, and her boss doesn’t have any answers. The only clue is that she was working on a story about someone called the Healer, who’s killed some major executives of companies deemed responsible for ruining the climate. Lehtinen decides that the best thing to do is to follow the story himself and find out the leads Johanna had. In that way, he thinks he’ll find her. Among other things, the novel explores the way people live in fear when there’s a major catastrophe or the threat of one.

In Kirsten McDougall’s She’s a Killer, climate change has become a frightening reality. New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where people can still manage, although for most people in the country, there are already hardships such as a limited water supply. The only people who are doing reasonably well are so-called ‘wealthugees,’ who can afford to live in protected, closed-off areas with plenty of food, water, and natural surroundings. In this dystopic landscape lives Alice, a thirty-something university employee whose job is to advise students. Things start to change for Alice when she meets a ‘wealthugee’ named Pablo. He takes her to dinner and buys her food she couldn’t possibly get otherwise. Soon enough, he talks her into temporarily looking after his fifteen-year-old daughter Erika, who is an intellectual genius. Soon, Alice finds herself drawn into a web of danger and conspiracy in a plot to save the earth. The main question is, will the plot work in time to save Alice?

There are also plenty of medical mysteries and thrillers that focus on people’s fears of a deadly pandemic (Oh, right…). In many of them, people are genuinely afraid they’re going to die. Some do. And that fear adds to the tension in the novel, as everyone feels the threat.

Crises such as the one at Three Mile Island can be frightening to live through. Fortunately, many of them are averted. While they’re going on, though, it can seem like the end of the world.

Ps  Thanks to the York Daily Record for the image of Three Mile Island in the photograph.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).