by Susan Rowland
We love murder mysteries because the story catches in its net the biggest fish of all: the taboo against killing another human being and the unknown country of death. On the one hand, mysteries can be cozy in converting the fearsome subject of death itself as something that can be solved, a fiction that dissolves death into something essentially unnatural. On the other hand, hardboiled mysteries reveal the darkness in the human heart and how even the best detectives cannot purify society from violence.
What is wonderful about the genre is its amazing flexibility from cozy comedy (essentially restorative of faith in human nature) and gripping tragedy (tearing away our comfortable avoidance of mortality). Unlooked for death stalks our pages in numerous guises from conniving family members to evil oligarchs. The killer can be as diverse as a frail centenarian or a multinational corporation: anything or anyone capable to committing a capital crime.
Here we may discover a genre boundary. To be a mystery, must a killing involve a crime? And what is a crime anyway? Why exclude death by means of war, famine, environmental disasters, and above all, so-called natural deaths? Are we saying that mysteries take place in a solely human world? Surely a genre that welcomes cats and dogs as full-blooded actors is straining at this boundary.
Environmental crime is located within the genre with notable examples such as making animals into killing machines for Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Sara Paretsky’s Toxic Shock (1988) in which a factory is poisoning its workers as well as the environment. In such examples, the criminal lurks in the human world while the murdering is human-and-more-than-human.
However, in the twenty-first century, the mystery genre confronts a new challenge: a movement towards death and extinction where guilt, responsibility, crime, and even the ability to think about the threats are mysterious because the deadly is so overwhelming and hard to pinpoint. There is no simple crime scene or smoking gun in human-made climate change.
Climate disaster defeats the mystery genre norms of measurable time and place. The unnatural murder of climate has happened, is happening, will happen. Plus, the crime scene is the whole planet, deep in the permafrost/oceans and in the clouds above. Hence, there is no singular victim, or killer. So, looking to the future of the murder mystery, does this manmade death event defeat the genre? Can homicide stories do ecocide?
To return to Paretsky, her novels break ground in that real hope comes from a collective response to the endemic corruption that V. I. Warshawksi inevitably uncovers. Yes, the genre likes a single heroic detective but no, re-storying this world is too big, too complex, ultimately too mysterious for one human.
I think this is true of single literary genres as well. Mystery fiction alone won’t solve the climate crisis. Yet we writers and readers can join the work in our works. For genres in art are lenses into the chaos of human cognition. Mysteries are a lens well suited to look at what overwhelms, what scares us most, and those challenges to which we do not possess a rational or simple answer.
By making climate anxiety a context in my own mystery novels, I suggest they become more complete in delving into who we are, as well as where we are. Beginning with The Sacred Well Murders (2022), I found that the sense of crisis about nature could push the already traumatized into what they believed was a climate-saving religion but was actually domestic terrorism. Now in The Alchemy Fire Murder (February 15, 2023), the story explores wildfires in California in relation to America’s little known history with alchemy in colonial times.
In the seventeenth century, the real John Winthrop Jnr. emigrated from London to colonial Connecticut with a barrel full of alchemy manuscripts. He practiced as an alchemist, dispensed medicines, and became the colony’s Governor. In my fiction, a famous alchemy scroll was stolen from Oxford in 1658 and taken to colonial Connecticut by alchemist and future governor, Francis Andrew Ransome. He fooled the college by leaving a near perfect copy made by his friend, Robert Le More, who accompanied him to the New World. Only in the twenty-first century would it be revealed that Le More was an African woman, Roberta, the Moor.
The Alchemy Fire Murder: A Mary Wandwalker Mystery uses the mystery genre to explore what was lost when colonial alchemy got swallowed up. The story thinks the climate emergency in relation to alchemy’s use of fire as a crucial ingredient of transformation. Of course, there is also a traditional murder in pursuit of the lost alchemy manuscript.
Can these inexperienced detectives triumph over corrupt professors and racist attempts to rewrite history? Can they remake their fragile family? Will the extraordinary story of Robert Le More prove a source of hope for today? Gentle reader, I dare you to find out!
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