By Mark Stevens
Editor's Note: We at Free Range Writers are honored that Mark Stevens agreed to be our next guest author, and that he was willing to share this deeply thoughtful and compelling piece. Mark is the author of the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust, Buried by the Roan, Trapline, Lake of Fire, and The Melancholy Howl. Trapline won the Colorado Book Award for Best Mystery and the Colorado Authors League award for best genre fiction in 2015. Mark was named Writer of the Year by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in 2015. Kirkus Reviews called The Melancholy Howl “smart and indelible.” More at www.writermarkstevens.com
Don’t you think the stakes have changed? Don’t you feel it, in your bones?
The last six months have altered the scale of life—and art.
And it’s not as if we didn’t know what was coming.
Public health officials have warned of a devastating pandemic for decades.
Civil rights leaders and activists have warned of broken, systemic issues taking a toll on Black lives and the quality of life for all minority communities for decades.
It’s as if the Beirut blast was a brutal reminder, in case we needed it, that it’s okay to look around right under our feet and acknowledge the potentially crippling threats to the delicate fabric of our lives.
By all accounts, a whole gaggle of port officials in Beirut knew there were 2,700 tons of ammonia nitrate being stored, in the worst possible place and without appropriate safeguards, for years.
Note: if you don’t think the Minneapolis-sparked civil rights uprising belongs in this list, I give you all the ways that the pandemic has illuminated longstanding disparities when it comes to fair treatment across the board and access to quality health care in this country. The concerns over brutality within the criminal justice system is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg known as systemic racism. And, yes, I’m one of those who thinks that 160,000-plus deaths—and counting—qualifies as a devastating tragedy.
So I wonder, for us mystery writers, if the term environmental means the same thing as it did when the World Health Organization declared the pandemic back in January.
Environmental seems soft, abstract.
I’ve sat on many environmental-themed panels at Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon, and other conferences. At Left Coast Crime in Vancouver in 2019 (in the good old days of in-person mingling) it was the “The Ecology Panel.” There’s always a different name for these groupings, but the basic idea is writers with books where the big outdoors plays a major role. I’m proud member of this sub-genre but also wonder, in retrospect, what did it all mean?
I’ve read dozens of “environmental mysteries.” I’ve blurbed a few. I’ve written a few.
Doesn’t a mystery novel wrapped around an old-fashioned fight over fracking feel sort of quaint right about now? Don’t you feel nostalgic, say, for a crime novel set in the world of a good political dust-up over the route of a new oil pipeline or the unscrupulous practices of a coal mine operator?
For mystery writers—hell, all writers—it seems like ours is a whole new gig. (Sci-fi and horror writers are likely far ahead of us as they wade, sometimes with a shocking degree of prescience, into dystopian realms.) Writers must now send their protagonists out into a much more dangerous world with a renewed sense for the sheer potency of the perils they’ll encounter.
That doesn’t mean a murder mystery set amid a fight over a river polluter or a crime novel set against the backdrop of wild horse slaughters no longer has merit.
It’s that these stories now play out against a much darker landscape—assuming our protagonists have even a touch of awareness about the world at large. Every fight for justice matters, no matter whether the fictional dust-up draws only one junior reporter from the local monthly newspaper or 24-hour coverage from CNN.
The pandemic, the civil rights uprisings, and the Beirut bomb have also sharpened the archetypes.
The deniers. The enablers. The truth-tellers. The alarmists. The fact-checkers. The gullible.
The obfuscators. The scientists. The fake scientists.
In her review of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey for The New York Times, Terry Tempest Williams asked, “What does it mean to be human at a time when we’re struggling with the nature of our humanity, when the world as we thought we knew it is fluid and not fixed? … How, Macfarlane asks, do we reckon with the fact that ‘over a quarter of a million tons of high-level nuclear waste in need of final storage is presently thought to exist globally, with around 12,000 tons being added to the figure annually?’ How do we
communicate danger to future generations, how to let them know that these spent rods of uranium are not to be touched for tens of thousands of years? Robert Macfarlane asks us not only to consider but to face the haunting and crucial question: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’”
Yes, how do we reckon with true dangers—dangers we humans have created all by ourselves?
Did we think there was no price to be paid for relentless consumption of forests and wilderness?
Do we think we can keep fouling our nest (Planet Earth) and not contemplate how the next generation will manage, given all the filth and the rising seas?
The year 2020 will go down in the record books for many awful reasons. But it’s as if that number is telling us something, too. We need better vision. And improved ability to tell the truth about what we’re seeing.
Our protagonists, too.