Originally appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, “Extreme Weather Mysteries”
As recent immigrants to Texas, my family and I awoke one spring morning to a green sky and the crackling sound of lightning hitting our house. Later that day, we crouched under a heavy table in a central hallway, as a tornado zeroed in on our small town. Some years later, autumn flooding of creeks and roads caused by a nearby hurricane delayed the first week of school in our area of North Carolina. No strangers to radical weather, we eventually returned to our beautiful home state of Michigan and soon rediscovered a deep reverence for the extreme power of a blizzard.
When I was a kid, we just called it a snowstorm, but the National Weather Service now uses the descriptive terms of snow shower, snow squall, blizzard and whiteout. The NWS says that a blizzard has “sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater and considerable falling and/or blowing snow (reducing visibility frequently to less than a ¼ mile for several hours)”. First-hand experience has shown me, in the absence of the above information, that a true blizzard makes it nearly impossible to drive anywhere past the end of one’s own driveway.
Due to a love of books, especially mysteries, involving extreme weather situations, I recently wondered about that attraction. Put to work as a strong literary device, I believe that a blizzard is a metaphor for life…dark, cold and dangerous. As in life, bad decisions made during a blizzard can earn heavy penalties, and the complexities of existence reduce to a single variable, survival. When used in books and stories, not only are the characters trying to accomplish something, solve a puzzle or struggle to preserve important relationships, but they must also contend with the crazy weather! In some cases, the blizzard becomes almost a character in itself.
Many novels set in places like Canada, Finland, Sweden and Iceland use blizzards and snowy weather conditions to provide unique settings and to remove the illusion of human control. Additionally, books set in a wide variety of locations in the United States use the blizzard as a central force or as an additional challenge for their characters. The first such book that I remember reading as an adult is the suspenseful thriller, Snowbound, by Bill Pronzini (Putnam, 1974). Set in the Sierra Nevadas, villagers are cut off from the rest of the world by a blizzard and avalanche, with three desperate killers in their midst. Placed in the Pacific Northwest is Lisa Jackson’s romantic suspense novel, Deep Freeze (Zebra, 2005), where the main character and her daughters are trapped in a blizzard in a remote area with an obsessive and demented fan. Set farther south in the wilderness of Southern California, is the first book in a new series by M.L. Rowland. In Ms. Rowland’s Zero-Degree Murder (Berkley, 2014), search and rescue worker, Gracie Kinkaid, struggles to find missing hikers during a blizzard, with a killer on the loose.
Wyoming is a popular state for books with outlandish weather, such as the Rizzoli and Isles novel, Ice Cold, by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine, 2010), in which Maura Isles finds herself seeking safety from a blizzard in an eerie town that hides a gruesome secret. Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire Mystery, Hell is Empty (Viking, 2010), also takes place in Wyoming and shows Longmire’s transfer of a criminal in the middle of a blizzard turning deadly. Lee Child places his 2010 Jack Reacher Novel, 61 Hours (Delacorte), in South Dakota, where a bus crash in the middle of a blizzard ultimately leads to this thriller’s explosive confrontation. Scott Phillips brought his Ice Harvest (Ballantine, 2000) to Kansas. Set in the 1970’s, a crooked lawyer is snowbound following a blizzard, along with a variety of unsavory characters in a noir-type tale.
Moving closer to my home state, a Minnesota blizzard strands characters in a community center with a killer, in cozy author, Joanne Fluke’s, Sugar Cookie Murder (Kensington, 2004) that features amateur sleuth Hannah Swensen. Also set in Minnesota, Tamarack County, by William Kent Krueger (Atria, 2013), finds the series’ character, Cork O’Connor, searching for the wife of a judge who disappears during a blizzard, leading to ties with a murder case from the past.
Close to my home and set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, author Nancy Barr’s character, Robin Hamilton, finds herself in a deadly confrontation during a blizzard in Page One: Whiteout (Arbutus, 2009). Finally, Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight, also living in the Upper Peninsula, has to work around the added atmospheric complexities of a blizzard to solve a recent murder and a mystery from the past in Ice Run (Minotaur, 2004).
The blizzard in each of the preceding books offers a strong sense of place and offers the characters challenges of varying degrees. In each case, the illusion of human control is taken away, as the storm forces people together or rips them apart. Favorite characters in our readings can find within blizzards, as in life, the amazing and desired relief when the danger finally clears and the calm of relative normalcy resumes.
As life often does, mine has circled back around and finds me, once again, living in Texas, braving that state’s particular brand of weather challenge.
My memoir piece, “Lonely Road,” appears in the 2017 edition of the U.P. Reader .