Number 1 of Elmore Leonard’s ‘10 Rules for Good Writing’ is ‘Never Open a Book With Weather’. Had the man never read Bleak House? Or The Five Orange Pips by Doyle, with those ‘equinoctial gales’ raging along Baker Street? Here are passages from two opening pages by Georges Simenon:
‘The sunlight was dazzling and Paris was aglow with colour, like a pastel drawing.’ (Maigret and the Madwoman)
‘The lower halves of the windows of the Café Francais were of frosted glass. Through the clear glass at the top there was nothing to see but the bare branches of trees, and rain and yet more rain.’ (Maigret in Exile)
I suppose Leonard felt that weather is a crass shortcut to emotion, but in my case it’s a genuine shortcut. My mood is profoundly affected by weather. I am savouring the heatwave that obtains as I write, and I increasingly think the English winter climate is simply not fit for humans. My own new novel, The Martian Girl: a London Mystery, doesn’t exactly open with weather, but with a prologue (thus breaking Leonard’s second rule), and weather soon appears – usually rain, falling on modern day London and the London of 1898, because it’s a story of timeslip. Much of the action takes place along the banks of the river, and that’s because the river magnifies weather. I can’t remember whether I discovered for myself the word that perfectly describes black Thames water when a wind gets up (it begins to ‘swing’) or whether I nicked it off somebody else. I do wish, incidentally, that I hadn’t read Dashiell Hammett’s description (in The Glass Key) of inner city rain as being ‘oyster coloured’ because that’s so brilliantly specific that it would be risky to steal it.
So often one is suckered into buying a bad crime novel by a seductive weather picture on the cover, only to find the book a claustrophobic thing, full of domestic violence in colourless rooms with hardly a glimpse through a window. I need weather, and in particular a description of light (or darkness), to get my bearings in a book, and it is weather that fixes a crime novel in my memory. I’m thinking of The Talented Mr Ripley (heat), or Under a Monsoon Cloud, an Inspector Ghote mystery by H.R.F. Keating with tension brilliantly generated not by the usual crime writer’s hysteria but the simple question of whether the admirable Ghote will lose his job. Immediately before the first monsoon, a sudden wind gets up. ‘There followed half a minute of awed, mysterious, empty silence with the sky a tense coppery cloud-dome from horizon to horizon. And then came a great double crack of thunder…’
Anyone who can read that and shrug and move on is just not my kind of reader.
The Martian Girl: A London Mystery by Andrew Martin is published by Corsair (£14.99)