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).
In personal writing, my story, Romantivores (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2014) introduces characters who then later reappear in a yet-to-be-published novel of the same title. In that book, the main characters, Solveig and Jonathan, find themselves separated during a particularly brutal blizzard while traveling on a remote, two-lane highway in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Setting aside the possible murder of a co-worker, Jon proves his commitment to Sol when he puts it all on the table to find the woman he loves in the storm.
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 particular brand of weather challenge.
The Driving Lesson
Originally appeared in Good Old Days magazine
Along with countless other teenagers in the early 1960’s, my older sister, Terri, earned her learner’s permit by attending summer drivers’ ed at the local high school. Eager to use the car, she pleaded with our parents to take her out for practice. Mom usually begged off. She seemed to be a little nervous about riding with an inexperienced driver. This was puzzling, as she herself told stories of her own teen years when she would, on occasion, drive without her parents’ permission or a license! I guess it was different when she was behind the wheel.
One Saturday in late summer, Dad had finished his yard work early and was coaxed into a driving lesson. He agreed on one condition: that we would stop at the local A&W for a treat.
My friend Jeannie was over playing Barbie dolls with me. Sure, we would go with them, along with little brother Mark. Mom was hanging laundry on the clothesline, chatting with her friend over the fence. She asked us to bring her something back.
We were forced to take Mom’s older car, as Dad’s shiny station wagon with the automatic transmission was filled with samples. Working as a salesman for a sundries company, he traveled all over northern, Lower Michigan, calling on stores and showing examples of available merchandise.
Slowly, Terri backed out of the driveway onto our graveled side road. Moving through the paved neighborhoods, I noticed just how many stop signs there were. We chugged a bit after leaving each of them, as the clutch and the gas pedal in the manual-transmission car did not seem to be working in complete harmony.
Arriving at the intersection of U.S.23 in our small town of Tawas City, we turned right and headed for the A&W. Coasting down the hill, Terri found a wide parking spot outside the drive-in. Immediately a carhop with a bouncing ponytail arrived to fasten the metal tray to the side of the car and take our order: floats for the girls (Mom’s to go), a baby root beer mug for Mark, and a chocolate malted for Dad.
Enjoying our treats, we took in the sights of the sparkling bay and soaring seagulls. Nothing tasted better than the mixture of spicy root beer and vanilla ice cream from a frosted mug.
Offering to hold Mom’s covered paper cup on the ride back, I could still sniff that wonderful aroma, now that my own float was gone. After backing out, we headed up the hill to the highway. Being such a scenic location, there was always a lot of tourist traffic moving through Tawas in the summer. Quite a line of cars was waiting to get back on the highway, where vehicles steadily made their way along the bay. Start…stop…start…stop…
About halfway up the hill, I noticed that our car began to stall each time Terri attempted to apply just the right amount of foot pressure to the clutch and gas pedal. Jeannie’s expression told me that she was starting to wish she had not come along on this excursion. The cold cup cradled in my hands was starting to sweat down my arms.
All of a sudden, we started to drift backward, toward the cars behind us! Beads of perspiration broke out all over Terri’s pale face. Even Mark was silent, which was unusual for him. Dad quietly but firmly continued to give directions, and we somehow managed to make it to the top of the hill with no collisions.
There was still a problem. The quickest way to return home was to turn left, crossing both lanes of traffic. I would have voted to turn right and take the long way home, but no one asked me. We waited endlessly for a break in the traffic. Maybe Jeannie and I could just get out and walk home!
Then I noticed two familiar faces across the street. It was the Morton twins, Norton and Horton. They were politely quiet boys, somewhere between my age and that of my sister. I didn’t know them well; they attended the public school, whereas I was still a student at the Lutheran elementary school. However, they lived on our block and had joined in a few friendly softball games along with our others neighbors, the Downson and Boyle kids.
Noticing us at about the same time, they caught on to the fact that Mom’s light green Mercury was hesitating as it attempted to chug into the slow, steadily moving traffic. In one fluid movement, they looked at each other and then took up posts in both lanes, signaling the cars to stop and let us out.
“Thanks, boys!” called my father.
“You got it, Mr. Ross,” they replied in unison.
We headed toward home. The car sailed past the drug store, where Jeannie and I often looked at magazines and records. Next was the service station, whose owner grumbled if we asked to fill our bike tires with air. Finally we passed our neighborhood market, where the back storage room doubled as a location for piano lessons. Spotting Whittemore Street, with our big, white house welcoming us, I had never felt so happy to be home!
Several lessons have stuck with me from that experience so many years ago. First, stay away from manual shift cars. Second, turn right instead of crossing both lanes of traffic onto a busy road. Most importantly, I learned the value of small towns and good neighbors.