‘Twas a dark and stormy night… A cliche, yes, but it always worked for me when I was cutting my mystery teeth on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite, Kay Tracy.
Much later, I heard Elmore Leonard give his “10 Rules of Writing” in a speech. First rule: “Never open a book with weather.” He went on to explain that readers want to read about characters.
It’s great advice, and I completely agree. I’ve been giving it more thought this month with our theme of atmosphere. Weather can play an important role in a story. Weather can be an effective tool in good storytelling. This tool works especially well in a mystery.
Recently, I finished reading Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell, the first of the Inspector Wallander series. The Scandinavian weather in winter is painted as dark and dreary, and Wallander dreads the day that snow will arrive. “At least it’s not snowing,” he says repeatedly. Oh boy. The reader knows that it’s going to snow before the book is done, and when it snows, something is gonna happen. The plot is going to take a turn.
The opposite kind of weather works, too. James Lee Burke sets up sultry heat, and the reader anticipates electrifying tales. I used to read a lot of books in Spanish, where the stifling heat of their settings drove the characters crazy and propelled them through interesting twists of the story.
Weather is a force, and it can drive the story. Weather signals the reader to anticipate turning points and dark moments. Unexpected storms come up to catch the characters unaware. Hurricanes will capsize boats, snow storms will trap both good guys and bad guys for their showdown, fog doesn’t just set the mood but also obscures what the sleuth can observe.
I once read a chilling story where the fog in London was thick as pea soup, so thick that the victim couldn’t see the villain beside her. In one of my favorite books, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, a storm plays a pivotal role and provides a major turning point. If you haven’t read it yet, please do so!
I haven’t found a good tornado mystery, but I’m still looking. Can anyone recommend one?