Volume 30, No. 1, Spring 2014
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Canadian Crime, the Undiscovered Country by Kevin Thornton
- The Canadians Are Coming by Robin Harlick
- Murder, Eh? by Lou Allin
- Becoming Canadian by Cathy Ace
- Setting Out From Saskatoon by Anthony Bidulka
- Land of Ice and Snow, Smoggy Steeltown, and the Italian Mob! Or, how to write mob comedies… by Melodie Campbell
- Mysteries in the Canadian North by Brenda Chapman
- An Insider’s Take by Miriam Clavir
- A Quiet Courage by Peter Clement
- Writing Canadian Cops by Vicki Delany
- Sleeping With an Elephant by Ruth Donald
- Research Made Fun With Vancouver’s Police Dogs by Elizabeth Elwood
- Mystery Is in the Mind by A.R. Grobbo
- Exploring the Canadian Wilds with Meg Harris by R.J. Harlick
- France on Berlin Time, Part II: The Canadian Connection by J. Robert Janes
- Canadian From Coast to Coast by Amber Harvey
- The Canadian Conundrum by Tim Heald
- Left Coast Noir by Dietrich Kalteis
- The Canadian Mystery Writer’s Wardrobe by Linda Kupecek
- Ordinary People, Like You and Me, Interrupted by Murder by J. A. Menzies
- Thoughts About Killing the Canadian Way by John Moss
- Canadianese by Louise Penny
- The Canadian Who Came in From the Cold (But Just for a Short Time) by Steve Shrott
- The Inferiority Complex of a Canadian Mystery Author by Cathy Spencer
- From Rangers to Red Serge by Kay Stewart
- Canadian as Maple Murder Pie by Robin Timmerman
- APOK? by Mike Walton
- Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Madeleine Harris-Callway, Lesa Holstine, Gay Toltl Kinman, L.J. Roberts, Lou Allin, Margaret Blair
- Children’s Hour: Canada by Gay Toltl Kinman
- In Short: Canadian Capers by Marv Lachman
- Crime Seen: North of the Border by Kate Derie
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet Rudolph
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that detective fiction started with Edgar Allen Poe. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841 by Graham’s Magazine and the world suddenly became a better place.
Mystery fiction may predate this. Voltaire’s Zadig of 1747 is seen by some to be a starting point. Crime fiction itself dates back much further. Depending on your religious views, the first criminal tale ever written was either Genesis 4—Cain and Abel—or Herodotus’s tale of Rhampsinitus and the thief.
In Canada, although it is easy to identify moments of crime in fiction dating back almost to the 18th century, common cause has us noting the first great Canadian crime writer to be Grant Allen. Born on Wolfe Island in 1848, he left as a teenager to settle in England and did all his writing there. He was a contemporary of Conan Doyle and although he probably would not have called himself a Canadian writer, we still claim him. Indeed that was once one of the abiding principles of the branding of Canadian writing; however tenuous or tortured the link, there has always been someone willing to note them as beloved offspring of the true North, strong and free.
There have been other examples. One writer in particular who was subject to the same national rebranding was Kenneth Millar, who as Ross MacDonald was one of the “big three” Private Eyes novelists of the golden age of detective fiction. Almost everywhere else he is seen to be as American as his two contemporaries, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Millar was educated in Canada and lived here for a while, but his writing is very American. Chandler, although born American and repatriated in time for his greatest works to be recognized nowadays as seminal American Literature, spent much of his formative years in England. Yet the British writing community has felt no need to claim him as one of their own.
Insecurity masked as misdirected identity would seem to be a theme running through much of Canada’s early literary history. Situated historically and emotionally between its former colonial master the United Kingdom and its big brother the USA, much of Canadian culture seems to be an amalgam of these two influences. In comedy, acting and art we are seen to straddle the line between the American new world and the British old school. For many years that was also the case in fiction. Writers were caught in the morass of trying to satisfy the publishing houses of one or the other behemoths as the Canadian market was deemed to be too small. Even today most Canadian authors have at least one story to tell of an agent or publisher critiquing work as being not American enough, or not suitable for the British market.
To our historical chagrin this advice was taken all too often and while there have been many great Canadian writers, there has never been a great genre of crime novel that was uniquely Canadian. The hardboiled P.I. has California as its home, the gentleman detective 221B Baker Street while the cozy sprang from wherever Miss Marple was having her tea. The gritty, wholly Canadian mystery category has not yet been created.
Mountie stories do not count. Rather than being a distinct classification, like the country house mystery or the noir mean streets fable, Mountie fiction straddles the western, the bodice ripper, the police procedural and boys own adventure tales. The only common trait in Mountie fiction is that everything and everyone is more polite. And colder.
Although there were some attempts by local writers to set stories in Canadian scenes, much of the output of most of the 20th century followed the well-worn path of catering to either the British or the American markets. Margaret Millar, the wife of Kenneth and fairly considered a Canadian, wrote crime novels set in Canada in the 1940s and was later rewarded with a Grand Master “Edgar” and the Derrick Murdoch “Arthur” (the Canadian equivalent). Frances Shelley Wees, Margerie Bonner and Janet Layhew were also writing books with hometown settings. During the 1950s David Montrose and E. Louise Cushing each wrote a short series of investigative tales, the former set in Montreal and featuring private investigator Russell Teed, the latter featuring Inspector Mackay of the Toronto Police.
Short stories also had their day in Canadian writing history. The age of the storytellers that straddled the 19th and 20th centuries produced such greats as W.H. Blake, Hesketh Pritchard, R.T.M Scott, Sir Gilbert Parker and others. The pulp years featured R.T. Scott II, H. Bedford Jones, Bertram Brooker and William Lacey Amy. These and many of the time played fast and loose with pseudonyms, and it is often hard to identify who wrote what for which particular pulp magazine.
From the end of World War II the writing changed as the country moved onwards from a vast frontier to a unified country built on the sacrifices in 1914–18 and 1939–45. No longer Empire traditionalists, Canada had become a collective whole. The distinctions of geographically based fiction changed. Maritimers, Upper Canada Loyalists, Prairies residents and West Coasters all began to embrace the idea of Canadian writing. Sadly the one distinct division still in the country, the split between French and English fiction, is still sometimes linked unfairly to the much larger political issue of Quebec separatism within the Canadian confederation.
Nevertheless both the quality and quantity of Canadian crime fiction was on the rise. The founding of the Governor General’s Awards marked the first time that the country had looked within itself and seen that there was much to be lauded. Many crime novels were considered for these literary awards since their inception in 1937. Some even won, though less so more recently, when the divide between popular and literary seems to be an ever-increasing chasm. There is indeed a delicious irony that the founder of the GGs was Lord Tweedsmuir. Under his real name, John Buchan, he was a master writer of spy and adventure stories, including one of the greatest ever, The Thirty-Nine Steps.
This increase in crime writing talent warranted, as David Skene-Melvin says in his work Canadian Crime Fiction, an organization to boost and maintain the popularity of the writing and writers.
Skene-Melvin has the founding of the group dating to 1981. The anthologist, editor and short story writer Peter Sellers claims it was 1983, in a pub called Dooley’s. Regardless, both happily blame the Globe & Mail critic Derrick Murdoch for the idea. And so the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) came into being. Murdoch was awarded the first Chairman’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, whereupon it was renamed in his honour.
The focus that the CWC introduced has helped crime fiction to become one of the dominant literary forces in Canada. This is not to say that the potential was not there. Crime fiction, along with romance, are typically the two most popular types of stories in many countries. The resurgence of interest in detective novels, cosies, suspense thrillers, police procedurals and other criminous tales had already begun in the two big English language markets. In the late seventies and early eighties writers like Robert B. Parker were doing for the P.I. novel what McBain had done for the police story, while the thriller was having one of its purple periods, with Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Robert Ludlum and Wilbur Smith leading the charge of many great writers. The advent of an organization focussed on the promotion of such stories was a major factor in the start of this new golden age of crime writing in Canada.
Suspense thrillers sitting alongside detective tales? Where’s the mystery? The trouble with generalizing literature is that it is not designed to be put in boxes. Yet to have an organization, one needs a definition.
So what is crime writing, according to the CWC? Their website states that it is a category that in broader terms includes any book-length work, novella or short-story that features crime or mystery as a central element. Which leaves a lot of room for manoeuvering, as it goes on to say that this includes crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works. Crossover novels and short stories such as romantic suspense and speculative thrillers are also considered part of the genre, as is SF and fantasy. It seems like the only category that is missing is political biographies, almost always criminal enough to qualify, but rarely entered for awards.
What this has done is encourage a writing school that is the next undiscovered country. There are over 350 members of the CWC, most of whom are published writers, some of whom are not easily recognizable as Canadians. Peter Robinson, Giles Blunt, Sean Chercover, Owen Laukkanen, Howard Shrier, Robert Rotenberg and Rick Mofina line up quite comfortably next to Louise Penny, Phyllis Smallman, Gail Bowen, Alan Bradley, Maureen Jennings and Chevy Stevens. If they aren’t enough to whet your literary palate, go to crimewriterscanada.com and see for yourself.
Crime writing in Canada has broken out of its colonial neurosis and has no need to claim other writers as its own anymore. The Scandinavians might have the current lock on cold clime crime, but the new cool crime is definitely Canadian.
Kevin Thornton lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta. He is a writer by profession, columnist by inclination, short story writer due to time management issues, and a practicing novelist. He lives in the frozen north. It is aptly named.
When I decided I wanted to write a police detective series in the style of the traditional British ones I like to read, and I wanted it set in Canada, I faced two problems:
I have no law enforcement experience whatsoever. I used to be a systems analyst at a bank. Not a lot of gun battles or drunk-and-disorderlies in that job. We didn’t even have a jail in the office basement.
I want as much veracity as possible in books I write. Everything I knew about policing I knew from watching American TV and movies and from reading British novels by the likes of Susan Hill, Peter Robinson, Deborah Crombie (yes, I know she’s American, but did you know Peter Robinson is a Canadian?) and many others.
As Canadians we’re saturated with American and British media. Once in a while a Canadian cop show comes along, but how much can you trust TV for reality anyway?
I realized that if I was going to be able to write the sort of books I wanted to write, I needed help from real Canadian police officers.
I’ve been very lucky in that everywhere I’ve been I’ve found police officers to be more than helpful in talking to me about the ins and outs of their job. I’ve met a detective constable who cheerfully answers any and all of my procedural or legal questions with good humour. And if he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll check with his boss or even the department lawyer to find out. I’ve been on ride-alongs and walk-alongs, I’ve toured police stations, met many officers, talked to dog handlers and met their dogs, been to observe in-service training, been to the firearms training course (where they didn’t let me touch a weapon, you’ll be pleased to hear). I’ve been taken step-by-step through fight moves and lent books about police psychology. My contacts put me in touch with specialists if they don’t know the answers. (Like a recent question on how to make a car bomb).
I’ve had some really boring nights too. As I try to explain when the nice officer assigned to take me out apologizes because nothing at all happened, if I want to see a gun battle or a bank robbery in progress, I’ll watch TV. It’s the everyday details of the ordinary cop’s job that I’m interested in seeing first hand, that I want to give colour to the books.
The protagonist of the Constable Molly Smith series is young, green, a bit naïve. She is a uniformed officer, not a detective. When the series begins, in In the Shadow of the Glacier (Poisoned Pen, 2007), she is still on probation. She walks the beat on a Saturday afternoon, attends fender-benders, throws drunks into the drunk tank, tells people to pour out their cans of beer, helps confused old ladies cross the street, answers domestic calls, and stands outside crime scenes not letting anyone in.
This is the detail of day-to-day policing I’m trying to get right for my books. That as well as the way the officers relate to each other, the jokes they tell, how they balance families and young children. My books are about murder and kidnappings and tragedy, yes, but they are also about people and relationships.
There are considerable differences, I have learned, between Canadian and British or American policing. The most obvious example is around guns. British police normally do not carry firearms; American police are required to carry their guns at all times, even when off duty. Canadians, as seems to be our national characteristic, are somewhere in the middle. Canadian police are armed when they are on duty and are (in almost all cases) forbidden to carry them when not working. Thus at the climax of the first book in the series, In the Shadow of the Glacier, Molly Smith is off duty when she has her final confrontation with the bad guy. All she has to defend herself are her stiletto shoes, her cell phone, and her considerable wits. In Negative Image, she’s working at the climax and so she’s able to use her gun to end the situation.
Canadian police (so my police friends tell me) are likely to be better educated than American police. In one of the Decker books by Faye Kellerman, when Cindy Decker becomes a police officer she finds it hard to be accepted by her fellows because she has a university degree. Among my police officer contacts are a Master’s Degree in Industrial Relations and an MBA. Canadian police are better trained (again, so the cops tell me) and better paid. There is no such thing in Canada as a part-time police officer and Canadian police don’t have to take other jobs to make ends meet.
A cop is a cop.
One thing I’m learning from the ride-alongs I’ve been on over the past several years, is that there can be a lot of humour in a cop’s job. It’s a tough, often unpleasant, job and they put their lives on the line every day. But boy, do they get a good laugh some times.
Recently, the car I was in was called to a home where a man wasn’t answering the door to his friend who had come to take him to work. It was the usual time and the usual routine, and the friend was worried because the man had a medical condition. He had hammered on the door, tried to peer in windows, even climbed a tree to get a peek inside. But no answer and no movement.
When we got there, the officer banged on the door, and bellowed, and peered in windows, and banged and bellowed again. He called for an ambulance. Reinforcements arrived, including the sergeant. Someone crouched down and yelled into the cat door. (And took a sniff—ug). Eventually there were four cops, two paramedics, and one mystery writer gathered at the top of a rickety set of stairs leading to the upstairs apartment. Permission to knock down the door was given, the door was kicked in, and everyone rushed in. Everyone, that is, save said mystery writer, who hung behind not wanting to see anything yucky. Then I heard a shout, “XX, what are you doing still in bed? Aren’t you going to work?”
So I also wandered into the apartment to have a look.
Yup, the guy was tucked up in bed. Didn’t feel like going to work, didn’t bother phoning in, and didn’t particularly want to get up and open the door. Out we all trooped, one mystery writer, two paramedics, four cops, leaving XX in bed and a broken door swinging on its hinges.
Vicki Delany‘s newest novel is Under Cold Stone (Poisoned Pen, April 2014), the seventh book in the Smith & Winters police procedural series. She also writes standalone novels of psychological suspense and the light-hearted Klondike Gold Rush books. She is Canadian guest of honour for Bloody Words, the Canadian mystery conference, in 2014. Vicki enjoys the rural life in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario.
When I sent Still Life, my first Gamache book, to agents and editors, there was a resounding silence. No refusal. No criticism.
It’s as though the words had slipped off the page in the mail and they’d received a blank manuscript.
That heartbreaking silence was, I thought, the worst. Until finally one, then a couple, agents and editors spoke up. And what did they say?
“No one will be interested in a crime novel set in Canada.”
Huh? Or, in Canadianese, I beg your pardon?
I was so flabbergasted, I could think of nothing to say. So I took the manuscript and slunk away. Half believing they must be right, otherwise, why say it?
Now, of course, I’d know what to say. Gail Bowen, I’d say. The great Howard Engel, who created essentially the first Canadian detective in Benny Cooperman. Eric Wright, William Deverell, Giles Blunt. I would say, go into any library and read Barbara Fradkin, Howard Shrier, Anthony Bidulka, Robert Rotenberg. Read the new generation of exciting crime writers, I’d say.
No one says a Canadian writer needs to set his or her novel in Canada. It’s not a rule, or a badge of courage. But it is a legitimate choice.
That’s what I would say.
Actually, I might find a few other choice words. About their head, and their nether-regions.
But, go figure, I don’t have to. Because readers have said it for me. By buying the books. By taking them out of libraries. And not just mine, but books by Maureen Jennings, by Vicki Delany, Mary Jane Maffini and all sort of wonderful crime writers, who set their novels in Canada. By blogging about them and and reviewing them you’ve made the obvious point that it doesn’t matter where a book is set, as long as it is good.
People are indeed interested in crime novels set in Canada. And Italy. And France. And Scotland. And the US. And England. And Ancient Rome and Babylon. Oh my God, you have to read DJ McIntosh’s Babylon trilogy. Wonderful. Another Canadian writer.
Emily Dickinson said that novels are frigates. What a perfect way of putting it. When I pick up a book it’s a ticket of passage—it takes me to places I could not necessarily get to on my own. Emotional places, for sure. But also a sort of literary tourism. What better way to see British Columbia than through the words of Bill Deverell? Or sleuth around Nova Scotia with Anne Emery? Or Northern Ontario with Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal?
There’s an explosion of exceptional Canadian crime fiction—whether the books are set in Canada or not. They are still the children of this soil, this sensibility.
And what I love is that there is no one “Canadian voice.” We’re not morose, or jolly. We’re not gun mad, or serial killer addicted. Neither are we cozy or noir or procedural or thriller. We’re all those things, and none. We’re whatever the writer chooses to be.
If you picked up a book, and it wasn’t set in Canada, there would be no way you could say, “Oh, a Canadian wrote this.” Nor should there be. There’s no Canadian coda. No lock-step.
I believe we can claim the fabulous and generous Peter Robinson as our own—or at least share custody with Mother England. Alan Bradley is a bestseller in more countries than actually exist on earth, and his Flavia books are rightly adored. Linwood Barclay is magnificent and riveting thriller writer, with a career any writer would envy. Chevy Stevens is a break-out in the US and elsewhere.
I’m in a bit of trouble here because I know there are amazing Canadian crime writers I am not mentioning for fear of turning this into just a gushing list. And I do gush. I cannot begin to describe how very proud I am to be in their number.
Though there have been a few cultural and linguistic hurdles for Gamache et al. There’s always the thorny issue of the “language” in which the books are published. Which language finds favour. Or favor. I would, of course, prefer the Canadian/British spelling—but I, sadly, am not all powerful. Yet. You will recognize my elevation to God-like powers when that “u” reappears. And specters become spectres. And people drive kilometres.
In the beginning of the series I would get emails from the editors asking things like: What’s a “double double”?
Every Canadian knows that. It’s a coffee from Tim Horton’s. Double cream, double sugar. A double double.
And, what’s poutine? Every Québécois knows that. It’s French fries with gravy and melting cheese curds. Disgusting.
Even when I explained what it was they didn’t believe me.
But my favourite (or favorite) is: tuque.
I had no idea when I wrote, “Gamache pulled his tuque down over his freezing ears, and turned his back to the wind” that there would be any words in that sentence that were baffling.
“What’s a tuque?” both my editors in New York and London asked. Both. Asked.
Now, I have to say, just given the context, could they not figure it out? Gamache is putting something on his head to warm up his ears. What, oh what, could it be? Clearly it was French fries with gravy and melted cheese curds.
I had absolutely no idea that a tuque is uniquely Canadian.
My UK agents always laughs when I describe Gamache’s, or anyone’s, “pants”—since for her they’re underwear.
But I think these small cultural and linguistic differences make the books all the more fun. Like throwing in the odd French word or phrase. Every now and then a reader will ask me to translate. But honestly, again, given the context, I believe most readers can either figure it out, or I’ve used words that are pretty obvious.
Merci. C’est formidable. Magnifique. Oui.
It’s not as though I’ve had my francophone cops say, “And the final clue is…” and then lapse into French.
Happily the vast majority of readers understand that the French is there to further underscore where the books are set—French Québec. Zut alors.
I’ve prattled on long enough. I really want to thank Janet and all the members of this great mystery readers site for embracing novels by Canadian writers. And for proving, once again, how very open-minded and adventurous readers are. Always happy to book passage.
See you on board.
Louise Penny was recently awarded the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour. The tenth in her Chief Inspector Gamache series, The Long Way Home, will be published in August 2014.