Friday, July 13, 2012

Thrilling Weather, a guest post by Paul Doiron

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: In the interests of full disclosure, as they say, I gave Paul Doiron's debut mystery, The Poacher's Son, an enthusiastic blurb. That was after it had gotten starred reviews from every major reviewer, but before it had been nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, etc. etc. Further disclosure: Paul and I blog together at Maine Crime Writers, which is a group of...well, the title really says it all, doesn't it? And a bit more disclosure: we've done enough library and bookstore events together to have our own little act going.

Final, fullest disclosure: I love crime fiction set in small towns and deep woods, in places where the weather can kill you if you're not careful - and sometimes even when you are. If you're like me, you're going to love Paul's upcoming thriller chiller.

Sometimes a novel has its beginnings in a question. Bad Little Falls began when I asked myself: What if Jack London had written a mystery novel? I was culling books from my overloaded bookshelves last year when I came across a paperback collection of London's short fiction. I flipped through the yellowed pages until I found "To Build a Fire" — one of my favorite short stories — and I started to read. Within a few paragraphs my fingers began to go numb from the killing coldness of the Yukon setting. By the end of the story, my heart felt as heavy as a block of ice.

"I want to write a book this cold," I thought. I've spent a lot of time outdoors during the winter, and my ears sometimes ache from a bad case of frostbite I suffered as a boy (I bet you didn't know there are long-term side effects from the condition). I've had low-grade hypothermia a few times (another experience I don't recommend) and been caught outside during freezing rain storms. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, living in Maine has given me a "mind of winter," and I know what it means to "have been cold a long time."
Maine isn't the Yukon, of course, but parts of my state do get pretty damn cold. The lowest temperature ever recorded here was -50 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting the wind chill. "He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow," Jack London says of the luckless chechaquo in his story. 

My novels are about Maine game wardens who spend most of their lives outdoors. Cold weather is a condition of their employment. When a snowmobiler is late returning home after a snowy night on the trails, a warden must go looking for the missing man. When a fisherman falls through the lake ice, Maine Warden Service divers must retrieve the corpse from the murky, viscous depths. And when a murder is committed in the frozen woods, guess who gets to investigate the crime?

In Bad Little Falls the duty falls to my beleaguered young game warden, Mike Bowditch. For his sins in The Poacher's Son and Trespasser, he's been transferred to desolate Washington County, on the Canadian border. It's February, the dead of winter, and Mike is experiencing a coldness that penetrates all the way through his soul. He's living alone in a backwoods trailer, broken up from his longtime girlfriend, far from family and friends. And as Mike observes about his new posting, "when you are reassigned to the easternmost county in the United States—a place known for its epidemic drug abuse, multigenerational unemployment, and long tradition of violent poaching—it's pretty clear your career isn't on the rise."

Things end badly in "To Build a Fire" because the unnamed chechaquo doesn't appreciate the extreme danger of traveling alone through the cruel wilderness. Mike Bowditch's own wilderness has always been internal as much as it is an actual place he is charged with policing. The drug dealers and rogue hunting guides who torment him in Bad Little Falls are dangerous, but the loneliness that drives him to make bad personal decisions is an even greater threat.

Settings have always played important parts in my books. In The 
Poacher's Son the setting was the vanishing North Woods in an era of massive clear cutting and real estate development. In Trespasser it was the maze of muddy all-terrain vehicle trails leading from one hopeless crime scene to the next. Here it is the snow-covered heaths of Down East Maine: miserable, desolate places that are the source of the English word "heathen," since they were places of exile for society's outcasts.

Most Americans are used to living at a comfortable remove from the extremes of the natural world. But we are beginning to see the growing shadows of the future in the derechos that tore recently through the Eastern Seaboard. Heat waves are withering our midwestern corn crops and sparking wildfires that burn up our Rocky Mountain cities. Scientists predict that global climate change will usher in an age of newly wild weather, of higher highs but also lower lows. That record low Maine temperature of minus 50 occurred just three years ago. That's probably no coincidence. 

In Bad Little Falls, Mike Bowditch—struggling to solve a puzzling murder before he freezes to death— knows what Jack London's chechaquo doesn't know: that nature is indifferent to the plans and priorities of human beings.

Nature just is. And, ultimately, that's what makes it so terrifying.

If you're interested in being chilled and thrilled, hop onto the back blog and tell us about the most dangerous weather you've ever encountered. Three lucky commentors will receive  a copy of Bad Little Falls!

You can find out more about Paul Doiron and read excerpts from his Mike Bowditch series on his website. In addition to blogging at Maine Crime Writers, he also has his own blog. You can friend him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter as @PaulDoiron


  1. Wow. Every author featured this week makes me want to sit down and read their book right now! Paul is no exception. Brrr.

    I have spent time in West Africa. Talk about dangerous weather on the opposite end of the spectrum. Routinely 120 degrees and so dry you can feel like you need to take a pee but if you wait a little while your body reabsorbs it. We had a flat tire on a desolate stretch in Niger on our way back to Burkina Faso in 1999 and the spare wasn't up to snuff. Young sons in the car. Did we have enough water? Would that scrubby tree over there provide enough shade? Scary.

  2. Gorgeous post Paul--sounds like you succeeded in writing a really cold book.

    Do the weather and setting details come naturally as you're writing the first draft or do you have to go back later and layer them in?

    ps Edith, we were watching the PBS newshour last night and one of the segments was on the famine in Niger. We'd never even heard of that dry desolate country--can't believe you were there with kids!

  3. Living in the mountains of western Maine, I can understand the climate in these books. But I'm devastated that I've never read any of them. Thank you for the chance to learn that there are even MORE books to add to my ever-growing to-be-read list.

  4. Lucy, The weather sections (and many of the descriptive passages in general) do get rewritten many times. I tend to write dialogue quickly, since I have some background as a screenwriter, and I like to think I have an ear for the way people talk. But my books are told in the first person so I have an interesting challenge with nature descriptions: I have to find an appropriate lyrical note that fits with my protagonist's voice.

  5. Welcome, Paul! This is a nice coincidence since I'll be posting my review of BAD LITTLE FALLS later today on my blog in my Literary Mystery Writers series. So Reds, don't count me in for the free book. I've already read and loved it.

    I will say here that Paul puts the reader right in the midst of the wild parts of Maine incredibly well, and it was great reading this book in the midst of a killer heat wave because it chilled me.

  6. Forgot to put in my blog website for those who want to read a review of this book later this morning.

    1. That's a fantastic review, Linda. I am truly grateful

  7. Welcome, Paul. Maine is one of my favorite places and I can't believe I've missed your books. You've given me a great reason to hit the bookstore tomorrow.

  8. As it happens, the worst weather we've encountered was the derecho that blitzed through here at the end of June. For many years we lived in southern California, with the always-present threat of earthquakes, and so worried more about that aspect of Mother Nature than about the weather forecasts. When we lived in Alabama, the tornadoes always seemed to be near, but not exactly where we were . . . the one that actually rampaged through the neighborhood where we lived had the good grace to wait to strike until just after we'd sold the house and moved away!

    By the way, Paul, I really learned something from your “Maine Guide Tips” over on Maine Crime Writers. Although I enjoy following your Mike Bowditch's adventures, camping is most definitely not my thing and so I was pretty much clueless about the great “nature-smarter” tips you shared . . . .

  9. Hi Paul,

    I love when weather in books is a character. It's everything between life and death.

    When my cousin Jim became a meteorologist in Bangor, I thought he was the biggest nerd ever. Then we talked living weather, and a metaphor for change and survival became a theology of lived religion.

    The most dangerous weather experience I had was as a teenager. It was supposed to be the first day of high school in Marblehead, Massachusetts. We had a hurricane instead. My friend Timmy and I snuck out in the middle of it to watch the waves in the harbor. We walked all the way from Old Town and stood on a rocky mound near Devereux Beach.

    We watched the incredible waves. We saw stuff get blown around. We thought it was fun. It was. The wind blew us off the rock. We landed standing upright in the parking area below. It could've been the ocean. We ran home laughing, not quite getting it yet, but smart enough to sneak back inside the house and pretend we'd never left.

  10. Reine:

    I love weather in books, too. There's a conventional wisdom in publishing that you're not supposed to begin a novel with a description of the weather for some reason. When someone mentioned this to me, I quoted the opening of The Big Sleep: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills."

    My friend replied: "Yes, but you're not Raymond Chander."

  11. Paul, your friend is brave. So are you to have such a friend.

    Going to read Linda's review now. I'm excited about your books!