It’s been quite gratifying over the last several years to witness crime-fiction series that were once presumed to have ended, suddenly being revived.
We saw this happen with J. Robert Janes’ Jean-Louis St-Cyr/Hermann Kohler mysteries, the 13th of which—Bellringer—was released in 2012, a full decade after its predecessor. (Janes has since expanded his line of World War II–set thrillers, with another new one, Clandestine, due out in late July.) Similarly, last year Rennie Airth brought readers The Reckoning, the fourth book in what he’d originally envisaged as a trilogy starring Scotland Yard inspector John Madden. We’re currently awaiting (in July) the U.S. release of Paul Johnston’s Head or Hearts, which will reanimate Quintilian Dalrymple, the nonconformist former cop last seen pounding the mean streets of a near-future Edinburgh, Scotland, in The House of Dust (2001). And after bringing back into print Carolyn Weston’s Poor, Poor Ophelia (1972)—the inspiration for the 1970s TV crime drama The Streets of San Francisco—along with its two laudable sequels (all featuring Santa Monica, California, police detectives Al Krug and Casey Kellog), Brash Books plans to expand that series under the authorship of onetime cop Robin Burcell (The Kill Order). I’m told the first new Krug/Kellog novel should appear sometime before Christmas.
Now comes The Storm Murders, by Canadian playwright/novelist Trevor Ferguson, writing here as “John Farrow.” You should recall that the initial Farrow novel, City of Ice (1999), introduced Émile Cinq-Mars, a rather legendary, French-descended sergeant-detective with Quebec’s Montreal Urban Community Police Department. It was nominated for one of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Awards and won praise from many quarters, with January Magazine critic Kevin Burton Smith calling it “a sly, intelligent work that can rightfully be compared with other wintry thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Its powerful scenes just beg for big-screen treatment.” Ice Lake followed City of Ice in 2001, and then, after a 10-year interval, a hefty and history-laden prequel, River City, appeared in Canada but won very little notice south of the 49th parallel.
The Storm Murders is reportedly the opening installment in a fresh trilogy of Cinq-Mars thrillers (the others due in 2016 and 2017). It finds our headstrong, big-nosed and periodically smug hero in early retirement, living on a well-off-the-beaten-track farm from which his much-younger American-born wife, Sandra, conducts her thriving horse business. Although the detective had totted up ample justifications for abandoning the Montreal force (not restricted to the hiring of “idiots” both above and below him in rank), Cinq-Mars isn’t finding much peace in leisure time. Early in The Storm Murders, for instance, he’s deep into a run of bad luck that finally finds him retrieving his malfunctioning gold retirement watch from a jewelry store…only to stumble into a hold-up, during which he comically tries to convince the would-be thief that it’s in his best interest to leave his satchel of ill-gotten gains (including Cinq-Mars’ repaired Rolex) behind and walk away scot-free. “Cops gave me that watch,” the 6-foot-3 detective explains to the comparatively impish robber. “They won’t be impressed with you. I know you’re not too bright but you can still make a half-assed smart decision, can’t you?”
Feeling increasingly cooped up, and with Sandra having just proclaimed that “she was thinking about leaving [him],” Cinq-Mars is more than modestly intrigued by the opportunity to turn his attention once more to a criminal inquiry.
His old Anglo police partner, Bill Mathers, introduces him to Rand Dreher, a perhaps more furtive than normal FBI agent with a particular interest in the recent slaying of a quiet but mysterious couple who’d been living on another isolated Quebec farm. Two cops who sped to the scene soon after the couple’s slaying met a similar fate, but whoever was responsible for the carnage vanished without leaving obvious clues—or even footprints in the surrounding snow. The distinguishing characteristics of this case are that the wife of the farm couple was left naked (if unmolested), and both she and her husband “had the ring fingers of their left hands severed.” Dreher explains that those specifics resemble the patterns of earlier homicides in the United States. The only difference may be the timing. “Every previous event, Émile, followed a natural disaster,” says Dreher. “A hurricane—Katrina, in New Orleans—a tornado in Alabama, a North Dakota flood. In California, a small earthquake, albeit with only mild property damage.” Could the heavy snowstorm of recent days count as a minor disaster for the Montreal area, thereby triggering what appears to be the latest in a wandering series of exterminations? And might the serial assassin be a Québécois?
Cinq-Mars isn’t sure he’s the key to solving these crimes, especially since the FBI man is obviously holding information back from him. The ex-detective is also suspicious of why Dreher brought this investigation to him, rather than pursue it through the customary channels—the Montreal constabulary or the Sûreté du Québec (the provincial police force). However, he decides to travel to New Orleans and poke around a bit, see what the similar, post-Katrina case there might reveal. And he invites Sandra to accompany him, turning the excursion into a quasi-vacation that Cinq-Mars hopes will rekindle some romance in their life and convince her to shed thoughts of marital separation.
Almost immediately, though, their trip to the Crescent City—timed conveniently to partake of annual Mardi Gras festivities—starts to go wrong. Pickpockets seek to snatch their possessions as they check into a hotel. Then their guest room is broken into, the thieves making off with nothing more valuable than their luggage tags. Finally, one evening while Cinq-Mars samples the delights and dives of Bourbon Street, escorted by a savvy black local cop, Sergeant Detective Pascal Dupree, Sandra is abducted. The kidnappers’ chief demand: that the Quebec sleuth leave New Orleans. Pronto.
Ferguson/Farrow is certainly not one to hold back on plot twists; just when you think you can surmise how this story will progress, he pitches in a surprise, be it yet another homicide or revelations that one of the people Cinq-Mars believes (always tentatively) is an ally has been deceiving him all along. On occasion, these swift shifts in the storyline seem a bit over the top (as is true of one character’s abrupt turn toward sexual adventuring), but most often they’re handled deftly, credibly expanding the parameters and stakes of the tale while ratcheting up its suspense.
Yet like its three predecessors, the appeal of The Storm Murders doesn’t rest solely on its narrative momentum. This is a yarn spiced with amusing digressions (on comparisons between the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature scales, the proper approach to prayer and even the thought processes of single-cell slime) and also rife with social commentary and human moral forces in uneasy contention. It depends on a fully dimensional cast to really sell its dramatic appointments. Chief among that troupe of course is Émile Cinq-Mars, an old-fashioned cop in a new-fashioned world, who has frequently been compared with Colin Dexter’s Inspector Endeavour Morse and John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick. I might liken him as well to Airth’s series copper, John Madden, in that they’re both veteran inspectors who’ve left law-enforcement agencies, but are incapable of leaving behind their instincts for solving juicy mysteries. Which is a good thing in The Storm Murders, for Cinq-Mars will need every advantage possible to figure out what connects the slayings in this story and save not only Sandra, but himself.
Years ago, when I had the opportunity to interview Ferguson/Farrow, I asked him about his concept for Cinq-Mars. “I wanted a guy,” he said, “with a keen moral compass in a world where that compass is usually absent or ignored by everyone; I wanted a guy who tries to disengage from the violence of his job and values a simple home life and philosophical pursuits; and I wanted a guy who would be in constant conflict with the bureaucrats, who wants to do things his way, right or wrong, and is constantly being hampered by those who demand that everything be done the corporate way.”
Cinq-Mars isn’t the only player worth watching in these pages, though. None of them is a simplistic figure—either blandly evil or wholly valiant. Every one reveals elements beyond the obvious, facets that make you hope they’ll win at least cameo roles in this trilogy’s forthcoming installments. That’s certainly true of New Orleans flatfoot Dupree, who shows himself to be every bit as diligent, bull-headed and rules-rebellious as Cinq-Mars. Their verbal and body-language exchanges are something to behold.
When City of Ice initially saw print 16 years ago, Canadian crime fiction was not well known in the States, and Quebec was terra incognita to most American readers. Kathy Reichs’ series about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan was set in that province, but otherwise “John Farrow” had the field largely to himself. Things have changed since, thanks to Louise Penny’s popular series (The Long Way Home) about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec, and to persistent wordsmiths such as John McFetridge (Black Rock, A Little More Free) who’ve imparted a bit more grit to this regional subgenre. Yet, as he demonstrates in The Storm Murders, Émile Cinq-Mars can still command reader attention as adeptly as he does a crime scene. Must we really wait another year to see him throw his weight and brilliance around once more?