A killer on the loose: Crime fiction and the climate crisis

My novel features a bog body found during a heatwave by farmers evading the turf-cutting ban

As I run a cool bath for my overheated children, dressing them in freezer-chilled pyjamas for relief from the heatwave, I feel a new resolve to try to sneak climate change narratives into my writing. After all, this is the coldest summer for the rest of their lives. But I’m a crime writer. A genre that lives on the turning of pages and thrives on the consumption of characters and plots. How can I incorporate the climate crisis without seeming preachy?

For there really is a killer on the loose. He’s already at work, in the climate-induced famine of Madagascar, the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys, and the Staghorn coral. Distant victims of this intangible malevolence. But he’s coming for you. And he’s coming for your children.

As authors, we wear a number of hats. For those working in commercial genre fiction such as romance or crime, sales take primacy over artistic expression, although the two are not mutually exclusive. But if commercial fiction veers too closely into a didactic polemic, readers will place the book back on the shelf.

Some authors are tackling climate change, such as Ian McEwan’s Solar with its hyper-consumer scientist protagonist or Termination Shock by sci-fi titan Neal Stephenson. But if disastrous notes or polemical lessons strike too heavily, readers may choose for something less, well, realistic. Dystopian fiction was less popular during the pandemic as reality was too close to fiction. After all we turn to fiction for escapism, to transport us to another place, or another life through the eyes of another character.

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But perhaps authors of popular fiction still have a responsibility to subtly mention the looming extinction of humanity without being overly bothersome. Should we try to skilfully weave hot temperatures and melting icecaps and fossil fuel shortages into pacy thrillers? Or steamy romances set on a retreating glacier? A murder mystery in an ecovillage? Does this risk trivialising the emergency that faces humanity?

I began thinking about how I could smuggle climate warnings into my work five years ago, after a visit to the National Museum’s bog body exhibition. My now five-year-old was a tiny baby, I was still learning to read her cues. She couldn’t ask for a nappy change or for me to protect her from rising sea levels. I started writing my maternity leave book, with a bog body at the centre of the mystery. A discovery was only possible due to a heatwave and two farmers evading the turf cutting ban. Death Visits January was published by Poolbeg Crimson last month, but the climate themes lurk behind the prominent moniker of a murder mystery.

For despite the Mediterranean weather, writers are on deadlines. The authors of your favourite books are typing away in the shaded corners of coffee shops or in a cool home office, clocking up the word count. The events of the day do enter the vault of human consciousness - that repository that artists and writers draw from when creating a novel. Even in the most formulaic of genres, the locked room mystery is not static. Agatha Christie charted the changing role of class and sex in the 20th century.

But literature did not cause the depletion of the ozone layer. On the surface of this discussion, it seems very much the case that art is reflecting life. But could it be argued that the fiction of the past century presented globalisation, accumulation and capitalism as good things? Think Jay Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, Bruce Wayne’s trust fund, and even Bilbo Baggins’ hoard of gold coins. Could such narratives have partly driven our desire for consumption?

But authors have cautioned us of the dangers of extravagance or extolled the virtues of eschewing consumerism, in Kerouac’s On the Road, and with Gatsby’s downfall. Despite these contrary perspectives, Western society en masse bought an aspirational dream to abandon the simple life for economic certainty. Employed in towns and cities, we swapped our time for money to buy things we never needed for the benefit of large corporations who do not care about the bees or the extinction of rare species.

If our society collapses, so will the publishing industry. Global supply chain slowdowns and paper shortages are already impacting how books are made - my debut even missed its publication date, sitting in a container in Holyhead awaiting customs sign-off instead of sitting on the bookshelves of the readers who had pre-ordered them.

Without electricity to run data centres, where will the ebooks and audiobooks reside? What parts of our culture will be washed away with the rising seas? In pockets of self-sufficiency that prove resilient against the collapse of civilization, it’s the bestselling books of the past decade that will fill post-apocalyptic libraries. The proliferation of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey will afford the title cockroach-like resilience.

As a writer who is just starting her career at 33, I can’t take for granted that I can knock out a book a year for the next four or five decades. There is an inherent conflict with tackling climate change in popular fiction. It’s the paciness of thrillers that pulls readers through the pages, consuming the plot voraciously that shifts pallets and pallets of paperbacks through booksellers’ warehouses.

But perhaps it’s not the role of the crime writer to be an activist. Could we alleviate today’s optimism with a protective nihilism? Why should we presume things will improve when it’s easier to think that they won’t? Millennials feel pretty hard done by that it’s harder to own a house than it was for our parent’s generation. Our children face a bleaker future again. But this presumption that life was always going to improve is a modern notion.

This does not make for a happy or neat ending required by popular fiction. Readers want to leave satisfied characters who have overcome their fatal flaw to get what they actually need, whether that’s a husband or an arrested killer. Once the mystery is solved, we want our detectives to be happy about it, confident they have put another bad egg away. Well, there’s still time to stop this particular killer.

Death Visits January is published by Poolbeg Crimson