Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
By some estimates, seventy-five percent of the world’s vegetation has gone extinct in the last hundred years. A decade ago, the Norwegian Government recognized the multiple threats to the earth’s food supply – global warming, rising seas, draughts and desertification, toxic pesticides, wars and terrorism, nuclear holocaust, hurtling asteroids. There will soon be a billion more mouths to feed and in 2008, the conscientious Norwegians decided to take the lead in protecting the planet’s diversity of agricultural seeds. They conceived the idea of a sort of Noah’s Ark for plant life.
They hollowed out a frozen mountain on the island of Spitzbergen, six hundred miles from the North Pole in the town of Longyearbyen. It’s so cold in Longyearbyen that it’s against the law to die there. Bodies don’t decompose in the permafrost and if a person feels sick enough to die, he is urged to fly south so that he can be buried in softer ground. But what’s inconvenient for people is great for seeds. Extreme cold slows the aging process and prolongs their ability to germinate. Back in ’08, Longyearbyen offered the perfect repository for seed preservation.
Scientists invited contributions from every country and region on earth and predicted that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault would ensure the viability of those precious contributions for 10,000 years and beyond – until Doomsday. The architects and builders boasted that if everyone who knew of the vault’s existence were wiped off the face of the planet, its shimmering mirrors and reflective prisms would attract the attention of survivors. The seeds would be found and agriculture could continue. The so-called “Doomsday Vault” was failsafe.
Bonereapers, the third book in my Dinah Pelerin international mystery series, takes Dinah to the remote hamlet of Longyearbyen, Norway where she gets a firsthand look at this perpetually frozen fortress built on solid permafrost. The science sounds unimpeachable and the design appears flawless. But Dinah is by nature a Doubting Thomas. In her experience, disaster has a habit of striking out of the blue, against all odds. Nothing is failsafe. She has the thousand-year perspective of a cultural anthropologist. Things that today are called myths were once widely held beliefs. Odin, the Norse god of storm, rain and harvest, was very real to the Vikings.
Time has a way of upending certainties and a project as grandiose and bally-hooed as the Doomsday Vault throws Dinah’s suspicions into overdrive. She doesn’t trust the agribusiness moguls and bioengineers hovering around the facility. She questions the motives of the food industry giants who invest millions in the management of the facility. The politicians who cozy up to the Norwegian administrators set her nerves on edge. She fears that the noble purpose of the vault may be compromised by political skullduggery, that human greed and corruption will bring about disaster. When an environmental journalist and gadfly who opposes the vault is stabbed to death, she and an indigenous Sami policeman join forces to unravel the tangled and complicated skein of motives and solve the murder.
I wrote the book in 2013. At the end of the story, the murderer is sussed out and the seeds remain chilled and eternally viable at -0.4 degrees Farenheit. If I were writing the book today, I’d be obliged to contemplate a different ending. In 2016, the hottest year on record, soaring temperatures turned snow to rain and sent meltwater gushing through the vault’s spectacular entrance. The unexpected breach of this “impregnable” fortress astounded scientists and sent the vault’s caretakers back to the drawing board. The permafrost was dissolving under their feet and the permanence of the Doomsday Vault today is far less certain.
The job of a mystery writer is to imagine all the ways a perfect plan can go wrong. What “i” didn’t get dotted? What “t” wasn’t crossed? Scientists and experts might improve their forecasts by consulting a fiction writer. J.G. Ballard anticipated global warming in his 1962 novel, The Drowned World. In George Turner’s 1987 The Sea and Summer, the waters of a climate-changed world lap higher and higher. Dozens of novels have envisioned ecological apocalypse. Bonereapers isn’t one of them. It’s a lighthearted, icy jog through the controversial world of GMO politics and competing ideas of how to save the planet. But there are ominous moments. At one point, Dinah falls through crumbling snow into an abandoned coal-mining shaft and learns that fifty million years ago, the Arctic was a tropical jungle with an average temperature of 74 degrees. Dinosaurs roamed the region and mosquitos the size of cantaloupes buzzed among the palm trees.
Prophets have always looked for signs and omens and made dire predictions. It’s a relief when those Last Day prophecies prove false. There was something comforting about the Svalbard scientists’ promise that their vault would endure for 10,000 years. It’s worrisome when intimations of Doomsday occur after only nine.