Canadian crime fiction is a seriously underappreciated subgenre, as I have mentioned before. Among the people who currently appear most capable of enhancing its profile is John McFetridge, a modest 56-year-old author in Toronto, Ontario, who first came to the attention of U.S. readers with his unabashed, mostly unpredictable novels Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (2008) and Let It Ride (2010; published north of the border as Swap), two of the four installments in his so-called Toronto Series (the others being 2006’s Dirty Sweet and 2012’s Tumblin’ Dice). More recently, McFetridge has delivered a trio of dialogue-heavy yarns set in 1970s Montreal, Quebec—the city of his birth—that blend turning points in Canadian history with credibly constructed homicide investigations to rewarding effect. All three, including this month’s new release, One or the Other, star a 20-something police constable named Édouard “Eddie” Dougherty.
The story told in McFetridge’s original Dougherty adventure, Black Rock (2014), took place in 1970, while its first sequel, A Little More Free (2015), flipped the calendar forward to 1972. One or the Other is rooted in 1976, the year Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics. Many local police are looking forward to being paid overtime wages, because their city doesn’t wish to fall victim to the sort of headline-grabbing violence that overshadowed the Olympics in Munich, Germany, four years before. But Dougherty, assigned to Station 10, is juggling other concerns. He’s thinking about getting married, for one thing. There’s also the matter of a hijacked Brink’s armored truck, from which up to $3 million in bank funds has been cleverly lifted. And, most significantly, he’s dealing with the mystery of two teenagers, Manon Houle and Mathieu Simard, who disappeared after attending a rock concert, and whose bodies were later fished from the St. Lawrence River. An early hypothesis is that Mathieu raped and strangled the girl, then committed suicide. However, as Dougherty—bucking for promotion to detective—chases clues, aided by an equally young, francophone cop from a neighboring force, Sergeant Francine Legault, he comes to believe the teens met their ends at the hands of another, and that their bodies were dumped from Montreal’s imposing Jacques Cartier Bridge.
McFetridge creates a pleasant balance here between the personal stories of his characters—Dougherty’s hesitation, for instance, in proposing to his girlfriend, whose parents seem suddenly bound for divorce—and the procedural aspects of his tale, which include multiple interviews, scattered hunch-indulgences, and surprising bursts of aggression from our hero as he pursues uncooperative sources for information. The author, who has created scripts in the past for the Canadian TV police drama The Bridge and written for Investigation Discovery’s Real Detective documentary series, portrays ’70s Montreal with a cinematographer’s eye, as he moves between the city and its suburbs. Presumably influenced by Elmore Leonard and other fictionists skilled in the abstruse art of moving plot forward through dialogue, McFetridge fills his page with no-frills banter (seasoned occasionally with French phrases to remind us of the story’s backdrop) that also reveals nuances in his characters. At times readers might prefer a bit more narrative to make sense of the action and overlapping plot lines, but the end results—and Dougherty’s manifest empathy along the way—don’t fail to satisfy.
I recently asked the author about this series’ inspiration, his protagonist’s development, and at what point in history his next novel will find its footing.
Not only is your series’ Montreal locale fairly distinctive, but so is the fact that you’ve set these books in the 1970s. Why did you choose that era?
When I started to research what became Black Rock, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. I was 10 years old in 1970 during the October Crisis, as we call it. Two men were kidnapped, one of them just a few miles from my house and he was killed. The army was called out and the streets were full of soldiers. I thought about writing a young adult novel. I thought the situation would have some resonance with what’s going on today. But as I got deeper into the research I found a small news article about the police asking for the public’s help with the investigations into three murders—all young women and all killed by the same man. I was really struck by how little attention was paid to these murders while the October Crisis was going on, and I started to think that a crime novel, a police procedural, might be the best way to tell the story.
What was life in Montreal like back in the ’70s? And how has that city changed—or not changed—over the last four decades?
Montreal has changed a lot. The most obvious way it’s changed is that now everyone learns French. When I was in high school in the ’70s, there were 250,000 kids in English high schools and most of us graduated knowing almost no French. Today there are fewer than 50,000 kids in English schools and even they will be pretty much fluent in French when they graduate. If I still lived in Montreal, my kids would have gone to French schools. Even many of the street names have changed….Montreal was always a multicultural mess of a city, a wonderful mess that at its heart it remains.
I think Montreal should be proud of how much it’s changed and how relatively peaceful that change has been, but I have been surprised that it’s been so little written about. Between 1976 and the early 1980s, a lot of companies moved out of Quebec and a large number of people, mostly Anglophones, followed their jobs. It was an exodus of maybe 250,000 people. It had a big effect on Toronto, where most of them went, and also on Montreal; yet it’s a movement of people that’s never really been mentioned in our pop culture. So it shows up a little in the Dougherty books and will show up more as the series moves into the 1980s. It was emotional for a lot of people and I think it might be good to talk about it.
Is it true that the character of Eddie Dougherty is based largely on your older brother, Bobby, a cop with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police? How closely does Dougherty reflect your sibling?
In some ways pretty closely. They’re the same age, and both became cops at around the same time and for many of the same reasons. After that, though, Eddie becomes his own person. My brother was stationed in New Brunswick for his whole career and, of course, Dougherty will remain in Montreal, so he’ll develop quite differently.
Does your brother provide you with technical expertise in shaping these stories?
Over the years I have heard my brother and a few of his associates tell many stories and I’ve adapted some of those stories into my novels. But for the Montreal books, many of the technical details were provided by the Montreal Police Museum, a terrific resource that’s run by a couple of retired Montreal cops, Robert Côté and Harold Rosenberg.
Black Rock was set in 1970. One or the Other leaps ahead to 1976. How do you see the character of Eddie Dougherty having evolved during those years?
I see him becoming a more serious, more professional cop. He’s also becoming a little more cynical, both about the public he deals with and with the police force.
One thing that’s clear in One or the Other is that Doughtery has ambition. He’s obviously had enough of being a patrol cop after eight years, and wants to become a plainclothes homicide detective. Has he always seen himself as moving up the ranks, or has he finally discovered that he has more potential than he thought?
He discovered he had more potential than he thought. Or potential of a different kind. When he started as a patrolman, he really didn’t know anything about the job or what parts of it he might be good at. I think, like any organization, the police need good people in every position. When I was a writer on a cop show a few years ago, the worst punishment that could be meted out to a cop was to force them to work at a desk, and I think there’s more to it than that. Sergeant [Jean] Delisle is a very good desk sergeant and Station 10 is well run because of him. But Dougherty has started to realize that while he may not be the smartest guy in the room, he is dogged and not easily intimidated, and these traits make for a good detective.
The other major character shift in your new novel finds Dougherty considering marriage to Judy MacIntyre, the would-be world-changer—now an aspiring teacher—he got to know in the last book. What’s finally led him to contemplate the prospects of “wedded bliss”? And how much do Eddie Dougherty’s thoughts about the risks/rewards of getting married mirror your own at a younger age?
I would say his thoughts mirror my own quite a bit. I am drawing on my experiences, so it’s not going to be all smooth sailing, but that doggedness will come up again.
So much of One or the Other is drawn from historical events. Was the murder case you explore here also inspired by something you read about in a 1970s news report?
Yes, it was. It actually happened in 1979 and I fictionalized a lot of it, but many of the details were the same. In 1976 I lived on the south shore [of the St. Lawrence River] and crossed the Jacques Cartier Bridge on my bike many times, so it was familiar territory. It seems like a long time ago, but those teenagers were the age I was at the time, so I couldn’t help but think as I was writing the book that they’d be my age today, that they might have kids the same ages as my kids, they might have grandchildren. So many lives are affected by every murder.
While I enjoyed the story you tell in One or the Other, one of the most engaging aspects of this new book is your introduction of a smart young French-Canadian cop, Francine Legault from the Police du Longueuil. I enjoyed her working relationship with Dougherty, and how Legault’s confidence seemed to grow during their time together. Can you see them partnering up again?
Thanks, I’m glad to hear that. When I spoke to the current media liaison at the Longueuil police and asked about women on the force in the 1970s, he told me there were many, mostly in youth services, but when I asked if there were many involved in homicide investigations he said, “Oh no, not at all.” So I tried to imagine how a good cop like Legault would handle the investigation. I’d like to see her back again and I think she will be back. In the meantime, in the next book, Dougherty works with a young female cop in uniform, [Christine] Guillemette. The relationship is a little like the [Detective Étienne] Carpentier-Dougherty relationship was in Black Rock.
Can you provide some clues about the plot of your next Dougherty yarn? And does that book have a title yet?
At the moment I think it will be called Another Brick in the Wall. It’s set in 1980 during Quebec’s first independence referendum campaign. The other big news story at the time was the American hostage crisis in Iran. It’s been fascinating to look at that event on a day-by-day basis as it unfolded. The bigger theme that seems to be emerging [in the next novel] is one of things coming apart, of people dividing into more separate groups. I guess you could say it about any year, but 1980 really seems like a turning point. Maybe that turning point is really playing out in America, and the world, now.
Photo: John McFetridge by Laurie ReidJ. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.