The Environmental Disaster as Portal


Why do disasters, real (think Titanic) or imagined (2012, when the Mayan calendar unspooled), demand our attention?  The less generous reason is that we’re rubberneckers at heart, curious about the suffering of others and relieved we’re not among the victims.    Psychologists offer a less damning motive: our fascination prepares us to respond should our own need arise.  We want to know what happened in a disaster, who succumbed and who through physical strength or cleverness survived, so that when tomorrow’s disaster strikes we’ll have a fighting chance.

What happened?  What can we learn?  These are a storyteller’s questions, and in disasters we seem naturally to look for stories.  No surprise, then, the proliferation of books and movies about a past, or near-future, cataclysm.  It may feel ghoulish to think so, but any kind of disaster will engage an audience, including environmental disasters.  Look closely at a Love Canal and you’ll find the conflicts on which a good story—and, for our purposes, a good mystery—can pivot.  Here are a few:

  • If this is a human-caused event—say, the dumping of chemicals that pollute a water supply—what happened?  Our protagonist arrives; an investigation begins.  Powerful forces may work to suppress the truth.
  • When landscapes are harmed, who and what suffers?  Undeserved suffering evokes sympathy.  How can victims be made whole?  Do victims need a champion?
  • Has the disaster pitted moneyed, power interests against the powerless?  Cynical calculation may be at work.  What view of the ruined land, and the people who live on or near it, underlies the disaster?
  • What larger issues are in play?  For instance, does the economy or lack of education trap workers into accepting dangerous jobs or keep homeowners from fleeing the pollution?

Two well-known environmental disasters, one on the east coast and one on the west, inspired dramatic, suspenseful treatments.  Jonathan Harr based his best seller A Civil Action (1996) on Beatrice Foods’ trichloroethylene (TCE) contamination of drinking wells in Woburn, MA.  Two years later, John Travolta played the investigative attorney, Jan Schlichtmann, who took Beatrice to court.  Pacific Gas & Electric’s use of hexavalent chromium (CR-6) in cooling towers near Hinkley, CA contaminated water supplies and gave us the film Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts, 2000).

In the fiction-foretells-fact category, The China Syndrome (1979) depicted the nuclear core meltdown of a power plant outside LA.  Just two weeks after the film’s theatrical release, the reactor at Three-Mile Island suffered a partial meltdown.  A more catastrophic meltdown followed at Chernobyl seven years later.

Real or imagined, human-caused environmental disasters can provide a toxic setting that mirrors the moral toxicity at the heart of most mysteries and thrillers.  Our classic protagonist is Chandler’s “man who is not himself mean,” who leaves the safety and comfort of home to walk “mean streets” where he will joust with corrupt politicians, jaded police, greedy land speculators, and scorned lovers.  Our protagonist rights a wrong and returns home, damaged and stoic.  For the moment, at least, the world seems a safer, less toxic place.  But corruption is rife and new battles await.

An environmental disaster can serve the same function in a mystery as the unexpected knock at the door of PI’s office or the disappearance of an old friend.  All are portals through which a protagonist enters a tainted moral universe.  In my forthcoming novel, The Tenth Witness (Permanent Press, September 2013), my protagonist finds himself entangled with a family that makes and recycles steel.  One lucrative source of product is steel stripped from junked ships.  Ocean-going vessels that have outlived their usefulness are driven onto the beaches of poor countries like Bangladesh to be cut apart and sold as scrap.  Ship-breaking is a messy, dangerous business.  The hulls are cut apart and recycled, but toxins are left in place.  Discarded oil, diesel fuel, solvents, asbestos, lead, and cadmium devastate these breaking-beaches and imperil the health of low-wage laborers.  International commissions have tried, in vain, to regulate the industry.

In The Tenth Witness, a visit to a ship-breaking yard alerts my protagonist, Henri Poincaré, to ethical and possibly criminal misdeeds of the yard’s owners.  The environmental disaster is not, itself, the story but the opening to a story about money, history, and the reduction of laborers to objects.  The disaster serves as a pretext, a portal to a morally toxic world.  Like any portal, it stands at a boundary: between inside and outside, here and there, up and down.  Step through and the world is changed, the story is launched.

(This blog first appeared in the Spring 2013 edition of Mystery Readers Journal. Photo credit: Naquib Hossain 2008, “Shipbreaking near Chittigong,” Creative Commons License.)

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