My grandmother used to watch the Weather Channel all day. Her recliner with the landline next to it was her command central; she’d call and ask if the front had me hit yet, knowing the forecast where I was two-thousand miles away long before I did. We speculated this was because she was raised on a farm. I have to say though, skies are a preoccupation of mine, too, in real life and in fiction. There’s something about being at the mercy of forces outside your control, that potent mix of terror and beauty. Bad weather is inevitability, it is ruthlessness and chaos—a disaster will bring out the best in some and the worst in others.
I wanted to write about a flood. While living in Central Texas, I’d experienced such devastation firsthand—a sudden swell of the river, water sluicing over blacktop, midnight evacuations to higher ground—and the desire to bear witness to what I’d seen was strong. Climate change was not a looming threat or a talking point—we were living its extremes. Add to that the urbanization and land development that’s destroyed native vegetation and left fewer places for water to be absorbed, Central Texas, already known as flash flood alley, was bound to experience large-scale disaster, and will again. How to capture the instability of living in such times—not through them—because this is now normal? When I began writing Hard Rain, I was overwhelmed with how to harness the power of a storm to greatest effect on the page. Use the suspense of knowing what’s in store for the characters when the black cloud breaks? Set the novel in its volatile aftermath? It was time to consult the pros. Here are the crime novels I turned to for inspiration:
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
When I first read this series several years ago, it made me fall in love with the PI genre all over again. In this first installment, private detective Claire DeWitt launches an investigation into a man who went missing during Hurricane Katrina. Gran’s DeWitt is Zen-like and philosophical, and the clues assemble from a mix of dream-logic, intuition, and insights into her own past. The setting and the characters are haunted by disaster, the novel taking place some months after the hurricane, and Gran’s portrait of New Orleans during this time period is searing. Claire DeWitt says she’s the best detective in the world, and I’m inclined to believe her, or at the very least, to follow her anywhere.
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Another portrayal of Hurricane Katrina in crime fiction, this powerful entry in the Dave Robicheaux series takes place right as the storm hits New Orleans and in its immediate aftermath, when the power grid is down across the city, looters have entered, and bodies are floating in the streets. It captures the disorientation of a disaster—what happens when an event like Katrina alters our foundations—and how in the absence of law and order, vigilantes will take advantage of the most vulnerable. This was the first James Lee Burke novel I read and what made me a fan. What I love about his work is on full display here, namely, what I think of as his intensity: vivid settings, electric and detail-heavy prose, and a way of writing the South with complexity and poignancy.
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Loewenstein
Set in rural Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, this is the kind of book rich in historical detail that would draw me in on atmosphere alone, but it’s also a first-rate mystery. When the titular traveling rainmaker is found murdered shortly after a dust storm (and after his efforts failed to produce a drop), the town’s sheriff and his wife begin to investigate, uncovering secrets and learning more about themselves in the process. What sets this book apart is its careful and tender portraiture of the individuals living through hard times, from the young men in a CCC camp to the dapper movie theater owner. The book examines how the townspeople come to terms with what they can’t control, like the rain, and what they can: how they see and care for one other.
After the Storm by Linda Castillo
Closed communities are endlessly fascinating to me as a reader. A taste for old-fashioned romance is likely what draws many people to Amish-themed entertainment, but what appeals to me in Castillo’s series is the opposite: the incongruity of a “simple,” peaceful community that has dark secrets, scandals, and individuals chafing against restrictions. Within the first few pages, Painters Mill, a fictional town in Ohio’s Amish country, is hit hard by a tornado. During the cleanup, a skull is discovered from where it was hidden for decades inside an Amish barn, and now, police chief Kate Burkholder—herself formerly Amish—must solve a cold case that forces her to reckon with her own complicated history. The ways people act out of rage and unprocessed grief after surviving the tornado, alongside the ongoing tension between Amish and “English,” is what’s so compelling here. It’s also a well-paced procedural, a great entry in this series.
The Dry by Jane Harper
A small town in rural Australia is in the midst of a perilous drought when detective Aaron Falk returns for the funeral of his childhood best friend. His friend’s farm was in financial trouble resulting from the drought—like most of the operations in this economically and spiritually depressed town—so when it appears he killed his family and himself in a murder-suicide, not too many question the theory. And yet, Falk stays at the bequest of his friend’s parents and launches an investigation. The area is at high risk of a wildfire, and with such accelerant—the dry land and wind—a fire would move swiftly and take lives, destroying what was left of the community. All it would take is one act of carelessness: a dropped cigarette, a match, an open lighter. As I was reading, I remember thinking that a flame operates a bit like Chekov’s gun in this excellent page-turner, the threat of wildfire a constant, quiet menace until the terrifying climax.
The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun
A taut, intriguing satire that mixes science fiction and thriller, this novel asks the reader to interrogate the demands of capitalism, to think about complicity and denial. Yona works at Jungle, a cutting-edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations affected by natural disaster and climate change. Before a series of sexual assaults from her boss, Yona was one of Jungle’s top representatives. On the outs now, she’s assigned to one of the agency’s least profitable destinations, where she uncovers their plan to fabricate a catastrophe where lives will be lost. In the end, this inimitable novel captures a very universal feeling: how in the face of perceived powerlessness—whether that’s under systems like capitalism, the patriarchy, or simply forces of nature—we’re invariably caught in a struggle between wanting to push back and having to let go.