Heat Does Not Make a Cool Mystery

A month of on and off temperatures in the nineties and my writing feels like meatloaf reheated for the third time.  It was good the first time, was leftovers the second, and is just garbage on the third go around.  Can I make heat work to my advantage as a writer?

I believe strong settings make the best in murder mysteries.  Like Agatha Christie I like the small country village where a body or two rattles the peace of the place and shakes some long-held secrets out of family trees.  Even when I travel to my Florida residence for the winter, I go to a rural setting.  I journey south for the reasons most do—to get away from the frigid weather here in upstate New York.  I’ve spent enough winters in this place to know I could write about them without experiencing them again.  It’s not as if I need a more recent reminder of how one’s nose hairs freeze together or the difficulty of getting out of the drive when the snowplow shoves all that frozen muck in front of a newly shoveled driveway.

It gets hot in Florida, but we have a thing called air conditioning.  As much as I admire the ingenuity of Yankees, some folks here in the north act as if AC is something only southerners need.  I’ve even seen people driving around here with their windows down when the temperature is ninety or more.  The recent heat waves in the north are a bit unusual, resulting in a run on air conditioners in the local “Big Box” stores which always seem to stock just enough air conditioners to satisfy customers buying early, say in April or May, but not enough for those of us who want one NOW!  Because it’s hot NOW!

Actually, we have two air conditioners which we are not using in this heat.  My husband says it’s not hot enough, but then he was the guy who drove all the way through Texas in three digit temperatures with the windows down in the a car.  He said he was trying to acclimatize himself to the heat, but I don’t think the poor dog understood this.  He also rode his motorcycle out west through Phoenix when the mercury reached 126 degrees.  Head in a helmet at that temperature spells stew to me. 

So here’s my question.  I’ve used natural disasters big and small—a drought, a hurricane, thunderstorms, wind storms, floods, blizzards, and other bad weather—to underscore setting in my work.  Does extreme heat constitute this kind of a disaster?  And if so, how can it be used effectively?  It’s not like the excitement of a tornado bearing down on the area and a murderer searching for another victim in the storm.  Or the killer has tied the protagonist to a pipe in the basement and floodwaters are rising around her.  Or we could go with the tension of two lovers trying to outrun the waters of a tsunami.  How about someone whose AC doesn’t work and the killer stalks them, but they’re too wiped out by the heat to fight back.  That’s as bad as that thrice-served meatloaf.  Here’s the best I can do when heat and setting come together:

The heroine lay on the path where she had tripped over the body of Reginald Beeftin. 

“Oh,” she said to her detective friend, “Someone’s killed poor Reggie.”

“Not so.  He’s simply prostrate from the heat.  No one’s got the energy to bump off people in this weather.”

Our heroine got up, slowly, very slowly, careful not to exert herself too quickly, or her mascara would run.  She kicked Reggie’s body.

“Nope.  He’s dead.”

“Who could have done such a thing?” the detective asked.

“Someone who’s found the secret to keeping cool and can move quickly.”

She spotted a guy wearing sneakers and leaning against a nearby oak tree, a frozen Margarita in his hand. 

She slowly, very slowly walked over to him (by now you can guess why) and said, “Why’d you kill Reggie?”

“Because he tried to steal my drink.”

She nodded.  “Justifiable homicide.”

The detective put away his handcuffs.

You get my point.  Heat is not exciting.  It can make you downright irritable, but it’s not the stuff of which mysteries are made.  Not in my book, anyway.  Okay, fine.  You try, but first you have to wrap your head in a heating pad for an hour or so to get into the mood.

Note: Above was written when the thermometer on our back porch read 93 degrees.  Be sure to duplicate that temperature when you try your story and let me know how it goes.

Short Blurb for Poisoned Pairings

Murder again stalks the breweries of the Butternut Valley and with it, something potentially more explosive—hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a gas exploration technique that could destroy the air, water, and serenity of the region and pit neighbor against neighbor; and this time Hera must pursue the killer alone as well as find some way to bring an end to the fracking controversy before it tears apart her once peaceful community.

About the Author:

Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in upstate New York.  In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport.  Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her writing muse.  When not writing, she gardens, cooks and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats, and, of course, Fred the ghost, who gives artistic direction to their work.  She is author of several short stories and of two mystery series, both featuring country gals with attitude: the microbrewing mystery series set in the Butternut Valley and this rural Florida series, Dumpster Dying and Grilled, Killed and Chilled.  For something more heavenly, try her mystery Angel Sleuth.  She invites readers to visit her on her blog and website.


Patricia Gligor said…
I don't have to "duplicate" the temperatures; I've been living in them! This has been the hottest summer in Cincinnati that I can remember.
Actually, your post hit home in another way. The third novel in my Malone mystery series will take place in the summer in Cincinnati when an unexpected heat wave causes tempers to flare. And, when tempers flare, people sometimes kill people. :)
Kaye George said…
Heat and sweat means something dark and hard-boiled to me. We're at 104 today, which is not considered hot enough for a heat advistory (that's 105). I wonder if drought could be used, a break in the water main. Lack of water is on my mind right now because ours is turned off! We have a leak *somewhere*. That's a disaster to me! If the AC goes, I'm so outta here.
The only great heat based story I can think of is Bridge on the River Kwai, and that just showed the strenth of Alex Guinness's character before he descended into madness. The takeaway Heat=Madness. Maybe heat crazed villains go on a killing spree?
Sally Carpenter said…
My book takes place during an August heat wave, although the characters are inside with A/C most of the time. After the killer is caught at the end and the protagonist relaxes, the temperature drops to signify he hero's "relief" that the tension is over. Now maybe I'll write a story that takes place in a blizzard.
Kathleen Kaska said…
This Texas gal knows heat and I can honestly say, the climate is a natural disaster. It can turn into a "means" for murder, enhance your setting, even develop a mind of its own and become your antagonist. After almost 50 years in our native state, my husband and I wimped out and now spend our summers in the PNW. Today, the temp is 65 and sunny. Don't shoot me, Patricia and Kaye.
Nice post, Lesley. Thanks for being our host, Marilyn.
Lesley Diehl said…
Thanks for all the ideas of how to make heat work in a mystery. It's either floods last year or drought this year. There's no end of how weather can be woven into our stories.
Kaye George said…
Shoot you, Kathleen? I'm coming to visit! Put the sheets on the guest bed.
marja said…
Here in Arizona, it's already been up to around 126 degrees. It's difficult to think of a scenario where the characters could even function, unless they stay inside in the AC. Maybe a murder in the swimming pool where everyone's gone to cool off? No, even the water can get too hot. Interesting subject, Lesley.

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