By Pat Browning
Talk about timing. News coverage of Colorado’s blizzard works right in with the Colorado blizzard that opens Jean Henry Mead’s DIARY OF MURDER.
And fie on those who say weather makes a poor opener. Weather affects our moods, our health, our actions, our history. If George Washington had tried to cross the Delaware on a warm spring afternoon we might still be part of the British Empire.
Marilyn Meredith's third Tempe Crabtree mystery INTERVENTION takes place during a snowstorm. No snowstorm, no mystery.
In the case of DIARY OF MURDER, driving blind in a Colorado snowstorm could be a metaphor for trying to find the truth about a mysterious death. There’s so much snow in that book I had to turn up the thermostat and fire up the coffee pot when I finished reading it.
In real life, Mother Nature is on a rampage this weekend through the Midwest. Fits right in with Nancy Mehl’s IN THE DEAD OF WINTER, which opens with the protagonist on an icy Kansas road.
I gripped the steering wheel in a desperate attempt to keep my car from sliding on the ice-covered road. My decision to leave the main highway had been a huge mistake. I should have realized that the weather would worsen the closer I got to Winter Break. The fury of the storm outside matched the tempest that raged inside me. I was going back to a place I’d abandoned years ago.
More snow, in this opening from THE PAPER DETECTIVE by E. Joan Sims,settles me right into her story and makes me wish I were there.
I lounged back against the comfortable arm of the red chintz sofa in the library and gazed out the double French doors at the snow. Flakes as big as goose feathers had fallen softly and steadily all night long. Deep pillowy drifts piled up next to the orchard fence and around the base of the fruit trees, and according to the weatherman, more snow was on the way.
Snow is picturesque, but heat and fire are true to settings in Los Angeles. In L.A. REQUIEM, Robert Crais opens Part 1 with the infamous Santa Ana winds, in a description so vivid it makes me itch.
That Sunday, the sun floated bright and hot over the Los Angeles basin, pushing people to the beaches and the parks and into backyard pools to escape the heat. The air buzzed with the nervous palsy it gets when the wind freight-trains in from the deserts, dry as bone, and cooking the hillsides into tar-filled kindling that can snap into flames hot enough to melt an auto body. The Verdago Mountains above Glendale were burning. A column of brown smoke rose off the ridgeline there where it was caught by the Santa Anas and spread south across the city, painting the sky with the color of dried blood.
On a cooler note, there is this lovely opening of OLD BONES by Aaron Elkins.
So still and silent was the fog-wreathed form that it might have been an angular, black boulder. But there are no boulders, angular or otherwise, to mar the immense, flat tidal plain that is Mont St. Michel Bay. When the tide is out there is only sand, more than a hundred square miles of it. And when the tide is in, the plain becomes a vast, rolling ocean from which the great abbey-citadel of Mont St. Michel itself – St. Michael’s Mount -- rears like some stupendous, God-made thing of dark and gloomy granite, all narrow Gothic arches and stark, medieval perpendiculars.
My favorite opener, one that invokes my first trip to Paris, is from KINGDOM OF SHADOWS by Alan Furst.
On the tenth of March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagon-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there'd been difficulties at the frontier for some of the passengers, so the train was late getting into Paris.
That was Paris 1938, as Europe teetered on the edge of World War II. More than 30 years later, Paris 1969 was a peaceful and affordable place for American tourists. It was still raining.
My tour group’s hotel was a budget place on a narrow street across from a grocery store, close by a bakery and a bistro. The rug at the top of the hotel stairs was torn and I almost tripped on it when I looked over the railing into the lobby below. That night I opened the drapes in my room to let in a little air and found myself looking at a man with a pair of binoculars sitting in his window across the way.
We were at the end of a hectic three-week tour of Europe. For reasons long forgotten I was the only one still speaking to our tour guide. He and I spent a couple of rainy evenings strolling along the Champs Elysees, stopping now and then for hot chocolate at a sidewalk café. For years afterward, the sight of trees glistening in the rain transported me right back to Paris.
Thanks, then, from me to writers who will set a scene and tell me if the characters are caught in the rain, the snow, a Santa Ana or a sirocco. Please, if the weather has a bearing or sets a tone, put it in the book.