What Do We…Know?
By Helen Currie Foster
I knew so much in college. So much! I was after a solid liberal arts education. I knew biology—I’d dissected the largest dead cat ever delivered to a biology lab, possibly large enough to require a human-size body bag. I scrutinized bones and organs, ears, whatever. Articulated the brute’s vertebrae, sort of. But now…?
And geology! Of course I knew the earth had igneous and volcanic and sedimentary rocks and a solid molten core consisting mostly of iron. Didn’t we all? I was confident I could find north by following two stars in the Big Dipper down to Polaris, in the Little Dipper. But now…?
Human history? We all knew North Americans arrived via a land bridge from Asia around 10,000 years ago, based on dating the Clovis point. But now…?
Let’s not talk about physics. I hit the physics wall early, at news of a fourth dimension, and made a life decision to leave physics for the rest of you. That was a good decision, given that string theorists apparently wander among ten, eleven, sixteen, or twenty-six (or who knows how many) dimensions. “If string theory is the correct description of nature, and there are nine dimensions of space (plus one of time), what has become of the missing six spatial dimensions?” Eminent physicist Lisa Randall, in her aptly named Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. https://www.amazon.com/Warped-Passages-Unraveling-Mysteries-Dimensions-ebook/dp/B002TS77Y8/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2QEGQZPDY1WX8&keywords=warped+passages&qid=1645480086&sprefix=warped+passage%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-1
In apparent sympathy for my inability to reach even the fourth dimension, fate gave me Joseph Malof’s Manual of English Meters, which has brought me deep joy for the rest of my life. https://www.amazon.com/Manual-English-Meters-Joseph-Malof/dp/0253336740/ref=sr_1_4?crid=SLBZZEC4NG3O&keywords=malof&qid=1645480007&sprefix=malof%2Caps%2C140&sr=8-4 Get in touch if you too need a lifeline.)
These Facts of Life, as we understood them…turn out to be wrong. Out the window. Over. So what should a mystery writer do about this?
Biology? Human history? Clovis points? So much we “knew” is out of date or just plain wrong. We’d heard of the double helix, but didn’t know the human genome could be replicated, leading to amazing genetic discoveries. While many of us hoped we’d inherited a gene from some favored forebear in family history, now we know we’re related to practically everyone, including villains and scoundrels. Bracing news. Ongoing analysis of ancient DNA now suggests humans were in North America by at least 16,000 -20,000years ago. So Clovis points were…much later. Think what this suggests about early peoples—all the languages, all the cultures, all the implications. A fabulous update on these debates: Origin, A Genetic History of the Americas, by anthropological geneticist Dr. Jennifer Raff. https://www.amazon.com/Origin-Genetic-Americas-Jennifer-Raff-ebook/dp/B08B6F2YFX/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2I6NFU5M8KMC2&keywords=jennifer+raff&qid=1645458138&sprefix=jennifer+raff%2Caps%2C190&sr=8-2
Based on exciting research at the Gault Site we Central Texans got a head start on this news. Those immigrating forebears got here as soon as they could. https://www.gaultschool.org/
Geology? Plate tectonics only became generally accepted in the 1960’s, but it explained what we always suspected from staring at classroom maps… continental puzzle pieces should fit. https://www.iris.edu/hq/inclass/animation/plate_tectonic_theorya_brief_history
But wait, there’s more. Explorers dismissed tales from indigenous people about a huge tsunami in the 1700s along our northwest coast. Now we’ve heard of—and school districts are planning against–dangers posed by the Cascadian Subduction Zone off that coast. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one
And that reliably solid molten core of our Earth? We now hear that “the inner core of the Earth is not a normal solid but is composed of a solid iron sublattice and liquid-like light elements, which is known as a superionic state,” and that this intermediate state between solid and liquid “widely exists in the interior of planets.” https://scitechdaily.com/scientists-reveal-superionic-secrets-of-earths-inner-core/
Furthermore, moving magnetic blobs in our “superionic core” may explain the North Pole’s recent accelerated movement. Until the early 1990’s, the magnetic pole was drifting at about 9 miles a year, but now moves at about 30 to nearly 40 miles a year toward Siberia. What’s the hurry? https://earthsky.org/earth/magnetic-north-rapid-drift-blobs-flux/#:~:text=Magnetic%20north%20was%20drifting%20at,km%20a%20year)%20toward%20Siberia.
Does our wandering pole mean Polaris won’t stay our North Star? (Sigh) Yes. By about 4,000 CE, due to axial procession, we humans will have to shift our North Star gaze to “Gamma Cephei, also called Errai, …a moderately bright star” in the constellation Cepheus. https://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/gamma-cephei-errai-future-north-star/
It feels like we’re rapidly having to revise our own mental frameworks, our own knowledge of the physical world. Climate change. Rising sea levels. https://www.npr.org/2022/02/15/1080798833/ocean-water-along-u-s-coasts-will-rise-about-one-foot-by-2050-scientists-warn
And I haven’t even mentioned Covid.
Does any of this matter to the mystery genre? Yes, of course. Many mystery lovers take refuge from current shocks in historical mysteries, enjoying Rhys Bowen’s period pieces set in London; Susan Elia MacNeal, with her World War II Maggie Hope series; Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes series, set in 1920’s England; and the late Anna Castle’s Francis Bacon mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have inspired writers to try follow-on mysteries. Authors of historical mysteries have an advantage: they know the “known facts” of the epoch they’ve chosen. They know Mary Russell was unaware of penicillin—and so does the reader.
What about mystery science fiction? There, a writer can pick and choose which “facts” of 2022 to carry forward, and which to abandon. The writer can define new “facts” for the setting, without the fear of making a mistake.
But what a conundrum for mystery writers who choose the “present” as setting.
First and foremost, mystery writers cannot forget that mystery lovers relish learning about specific settings. Alexander McCall Smith told the Texas Book Festival that he “starts with the place.” Place is key. That’s one reason mystery reader rejoice when they find an appealing new mystery series, because it deepens our grasp of a setting—distinctive food, landscape, characters. The setting’s part of the experience. I certainly want readers to feel immersed in the Texas Hill Country in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series books, including book 7, Ghost Daughter. https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Daughter-Alice-MacDonald-Mysteries/dp/1732722919?asin=1732722919&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Often mystery writers keep the mystery’s timeframe somewhat vague, omitting overreliance on specific recent events. Mystery lovers are looking for a mystery. That doesn’t mean, of course, that authors won’t deal with tough contemporary issues. They can and do. But readers decidedly want a puzzle, want to use their own minds and life experience with the world and human nature to solve a mystery, involving motive, method and opportunity. Don’t we consider good mysteries “classics” when they can be read and re-read in subsequent decades?
The writer may take a middle road, addressing one or more contemporary issues. In her Guido Brunetti series set in Venice, Donna Leon does not dodge the impacts of climate change (rising sea levels), pollution, and the desperate plight of African and Eastern European immigrants. But her Inspector Brunetti comforts us by his fierce adherence to traditional Venetian values (and cuisine).
But still, all this new knowledge (genomes! Fourth dimension! Cascadian subduction!) is exciting stuff. Now, perhaps a mystery about archeologists disputing whether or not that rock shard is a knife…or just a rock shard?
P.S. Not sure how it would work for a mystery clue, but did you know hummingbirds can see ultra-violet colors? How can that be? What would that look like? https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/06/15/wild-hummingbirds-see-broad-range-colors-humans-can-only-imagine
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery Series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s drawn to the compelling landscape of the Texas Hill Country, and the quirky characters who live there. She’s deeply curious about human prehistory and why, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime.