Number One of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is, ‘Never open a book with weather.’
If he was referring solely to the first sentence, I’ve broken his rule just once, (Death at Whitewater Church begins with the line ‘The wind was bitter, there was snow in the air’) but I’ve rarely made it to the second paragraph before some form of precipitation makes an appearance in my books. Line four of Treacherous Strand reads: ‘The windscreen wipers screeched as they did battle with the heavy rain.’ And my latest book The Body Falls is based entirely around a flood.
I admit it. I love weather. I use it to create mood, to enrich my settings and as a plot device.
And I am not alone.
Who can forget the last lines of James Joyce’s The Dead?
It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Or the storms in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights:
About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire.
When it comes to bringing a location to life, weather is a major tool at the writer’s disposal. Writers of all genres use it to create atmosphere, to set a mood, and to help convey a sense of place. It helps them to transport the reader to somewhere they’ve never been: somewhere hotter, wetter, colder. A change in weather can make a static setting dynamic, jolt a narrative back to life, and provide a sudden shift in mood.
But it can also build suspense, which makes it a particularly potent device in crime fiction. A sudden snow storm, a hurricane, or heat wave has the capacity to make everything feel darker and more threatening. Towns can be cut off; people can become trapped; tempers can flare.
People’s behaviour is affected by the weather, particularly heat, as demonstrated by the portentous opening lines of Raymond Chandler’s Red Wind.
‘There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.
In Helen Fitzgerald’s book Ash Mountain a devastating bushfire jolts a small town from complacency. In the same part of the world, Jane Harper uses the cruel climate of the Australian outback to huge effect in her crime novels, particularly The Lost Man in which a man dies hundreds of miles from the nearest town, trying desperately to escape the blistering heat by crawling around in the shadow of an old headstone. Just reading it will cause beads of sweat to form on the back of your neck.
At the other end of the thermometer, winter weather makes a chilling backdrop for Scandi-noir and Nordic-noir crime fiction in which cold, bleak, settings help to create an ominous atmosphere.
We feel the cold seep into our bones in Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, where a serial killer leaves a snowman at every murder scene, flipping a usually happy image onto its head. And in Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind a murder takes place in an isolated Icelandic town where an avalanche has cut off all communication.
Weather will always have more of an impact in a rural setting. The Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, where I set my crime series, is such a setting. I lived there for over a decade and never got used to the wind that buffeted me when I emerged from my house in winter.
The Body Falls which is the fifth book in the series, was inspired by a real, extreme weather event. In August 2017 an unprecedented level of rain fell over a period of two hours in Inishowen resulting in devastating floods, damage to property and loss of animals. Bridges collapsed, roads were impassable and towns were cut off. It seemed to me like an ideal set up for a murder mystery, especially if a charity cycle brought a group of strangers into town, who then became trapped…
But be warned, it begins to rain in chapter three of The Body Falls and barely stops. So, if you’re in the mood for a book set on a sun-drenched island, this may not be the one for you!
But then who would have Sherlock Homes without the fog?
(c) Andrea Carter
About The Body Falls:
April in Florida and Ben O’Keeffe is enjoying balmy temperatures, working the last few days of a six-month stint with her old law firm. A week later she returns to Glendara, Inishowen where a charity cycle race is taking place. But it starts to rain, causing the cyclists to postpone the start of their event and stay overnight in the town. But the rain doesn’t stop; it increases to become relentless, torrential.
In the middle of the night Sergeant Tom Molloy is called out to Mamore Gap, where a body, dislodged from a high bank by the heavy rain, has fallen onto the vet’s jeep. It is identified as Bob Jameson, a well-known local charities boss, and the organiser of the cycling event. Stunned, the GP confirms that the man has suffered a snakebite.
Terrible weather persists and soon bridges are down and roads are impassable. Glendara is completely cut off, with a killer at the heart of the community. Who is responsible for Bob Jameson’s death? One of the strangers in town or someone closer to home? It’s left to Molloy, with Ben’s assistance, to find out what is going on.
‘Her best yet… Andrea conjures up a phenomenal sense of place. She is such an assured, stylish writer and The Body Falls is remarkably gripping’ Jo Spain
Order your copy online here.