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The Next Riley Mystery

I’ve begun working on a plot outline for my second mystery featuring C.V. Riley, the hard-bitten, soft-hearted detective-turned-exterminator who uses his knowledge of insectan and human nature to solve crimes. The event that serves as the kernel for this story was the first outbreak of the Mediterranean fruit fly in California—a pest invasion that cost millions of dollars to suppress. The Medfly infests just about every fruit imaginable and strikes fear into the hearts of farmers and politicians.

The pest made its debut in San Francisco in 1980 and arrived in Los Angeles in 1988. The authorities figured that it arrived through accidental introductions in both cases. They scrambled to extirpate the Medfly, knowing that a total quarantine of California fruits would cost 132,000 jobs and $13 billion. However, in the midst of the massive program of insecticide spraying came a bizarre letter with an unprecedented extortion threat.

A bioterrorist group of radical environmentalists, calling itself The Breeders, was enraged by the large-scale application of malathion. They claimed to be clandestinely producing Medflies and releasing them to continuously expand the treatment area, which had grown to more than 200 square miles. Their twisted plan was to increase the range of the pest and thereby make the control program economically and politically unsustainable—unless the authorities agreed to stop spraying. The extortionists changed the course of the control program, as authorities couldn’t be sure whether flies caught in baited traps to monitor the situation represented wild insects or the products of a hidden breeding facility. Within a year, the infestation was suppressed and the Breeders were never found.

What if there was a well-organized group dedicated to starting an outbreak? Their motivation could be extortion (pay our price or it’ll cost thousands of times more in terms of agricultural losses), profit (the value of produce would increase dramatically), or destruction (the US had some serious enemies in the 1980s with the ability to wage entomological warfare). State and federal authorities might well be stymied in terms of tracking down the source of Medflies. But a former cop with a penchant for entomology working behind the scenes for a law enforcement agency could find his way into places that wouldn’t be accessible through official channels. An investigator like Riley.

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