Thursday, November 24, 2016

But what if?

Michael - Thursday

I’m in northern Queensland on a bird watching trip. I think you'll agree that the Buff-breasted Paradise-kingfisher was worth the 10k miles of travel!

Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher.
Photo Ian Wilson
This is tropical Australia—superb rain forests and humidity close to 100%. As soon as the temperature drops a bit, it starts to drizzle; half an hour later the sun is out and everything is full of steamy life again. Here's a picture of the ‘garden’ in front of the house we rented near Kuranda, north of Cairns.

It’s pretty hard to spot birds in the forest because it’s so dense, and it’s impossible to see animals unless they come out into a clearing. The Cassowary is a case in point. These flightless birds stand 5 foot high and they live in the forest, but you seldom see them through the thick foliage. (We were lucky and saw a couple out near the road.) I suppose one of the things about mystery writers is that they always look at anything unusual with a touch of but-what-if. With the forest so dense, much of what goes on there must be secret. What about murder? How long would it take to discover the body? Would it ever be discovered? The undergrowth is too thick for people to bash through, maybe a dog?

Another thing about mystery writers is that we know that our readers expect believable plots and characters. Coincidences exist in real life, but it’s bad taste to use them as a plot resolver. So how about this story? Two people, both members of a French group exploring the Barrier Reef off Cairns, die at the same time while snorkeling. Both apparently had preexisting medical conditions, but snorkeling isn’t particularly strenuous. It would be easy to believe one death—tragic and surprising though it would be. But two deaths at the same time? Of two unrelated people who had been fine on the trip up until that point? Then add a scuba diver drowning only a few hundred meters away a couple of days later. No mystery writer could have coincidences like that and get away with it. However, there’s an obvious and entirely believable explanation—suggested by a specialist and immediately rejected out of hand by the tour operator, the company operating the snorkeling boat, and the tourism minister.

At this time of the year as the water grows warmer, this coast gets an influx of ‘stingers’ – small jellyfish-like creatures with poisonous streamers. There's not much hope of spotting them; the most deadly could fit onto your finger nail. Some feel like nothing more than a tingle, some can leave a nasty welt and burning pain, and one can kill.

Irukandji are tiny
The poison of the Irukandji jelly fish streamers takes some time to work, but then causes heart problems and ultimately cardiac arrest. People swimming in these waters ought to wear special ‘stinger suits’ – mesh material to keep the creatures at bay. One of the two French tourists was, the other wasn’t. Sometimes people prefer wet suits which aren’t as effective against the stings.  I don’t know what the scuba diver was wearing.

Stinger suits -
note that faces and feet aren't covered 

Consider your verdict. An unfortunate Irukandji attack as proposed by the expert. Or coincidence as proposed by the tourist personnel—who have no vested interest in making people believe that the reef is absolutely safe, of course. And what if one wanted to murder someone with a weak heart using an almost undetectable poison? A mystery plot opportunity. Just don’t kill two characters the same way at the same time!

Lake Eacham. Idyllic?
There’s been another mystery up here too. Lake Eacham is one of the spectacular crater lakes that grace the Tablelands – higher country inland from Cairns. Formed by repeated volcanic explosions as a result of magma being forced out under water, they are very deep and surrounded by thick forest. Some eighteen months ago a man out on a kayak disappeared here, believed drowned. Under the conditions prevalent at this lake, the body was expected to float to the service after around ten days. It didn’t, leading to speculation that the body was somehow wedged below the surface—perhaps in a passage joining with another lake. Yet there is no evidence of such a passage and expert divers here deny its existence. One went on searching the lake without success for weeks after the incident.

A few weeks ago some swimmers found the body on the shore of the lake. No one suspects foul play and that’s the end of the true, tragic story. Only the experts are puzzled about the strange length of time the body remained hidden under the water and about what eventually brought it to the surface.

But let’s play but-what-if. Suppose he didn’t drown—after all the lake isn’t usually rough. It turns out the man had an alias (true fact). Perhaps other things were going on, perhaps he faked his death, but perhaps the bad guys found him and closed the loop, dumping his body in the lake weighted with stones, expecting the weights to come loose in due course – eighteen months in this case. Probably forensics could tell, but who would look that closely? I’m not suggesting for one moment that that is what happened, I’m just discovering a plot in a tragic true event.

I’ll finish with this spectacular Curtain Fig. A murder took place here too, but no humans were involved. What plots does it bring to your mind?


  1. Really enjoyed the column, Michael! (And I don't give a fig what's behind the curtain, it's creepy as hell.)

  2. I have always found the attraction of Australia obvious. Except that everything there wants to kill/eat/poison homo sapiens. So I really enjoyed this blog from my nice comfy sofa, in front of a big log fire while it's minus 6 outside.
    And now I think I know where Nessie goes her holidays.

    1. Yes, and with my luck she'll be the middle seat next to me on the plane!

  3. I love to free dive, but to be honest I'd rather deal with Nessie than Australian stingers. And they do exist. A few years back I met a couple on Mykonos who ran a dive shop in Australia and the wife told me she won't dive any more without protection from the can't see stingers. Of course, more folks claim to see Nessie.