In my last column, I looked at some of the difficulties facing today’s Canadian crime novelists as they seek attention for their works beyond the precincts of their own nation. American publishers are often leery of taking them on, their fiction has trouble achieving notice amid the contesting torrents of U.S. and U.K. mysteries and thrillers, and international readers don’t necessarily find Canadian settings “exotic” enough to be interesting (unlike the frosty, rolling reaches of Scandinavia).
Some of the best-recognized crime-fictionists living north of the U.S. border—Peter Robinson, Linwood Barclay, J. Robert Janes and Owen Laukkanen among them—don’t commonly set their tales on their home turf. However, there remain plenty of made-in-Canada authors with easily discernible links to the land of maple leaves, Molson and moose. Recently, I asked several novelists and critics from Up North to help me assemble the following list of contemporary Canadian mystery-makers whose tales you ought to sample, if you haven’t already.
John McFetridge: “If anyone asks,” says Kevin Burton Smith, the Quebec-reared editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, “John McFetridge is Canada’s answer to Elmore Leonard, but less glib, less arch.” McFetridge initially found international favor with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (2008), about a Toronto marijuana grower facing off against a drug kingpin and a couple of bounds-testing cops, then followed that up with Let It Ride (2010; published as Swap in Canada), which focused on drug trafficking and big-time theft along the U.S./Canada border. His action-filled but empathetic yarns are “a dirty jab in the eye of Toronto the Good,” Smith remarks, “and well overdue.” McFetridge’s next novel, Black Rock (tentatively due in early 2014), might be his best yet, suggests Smith. “It has McFetridge returning to his Montreal-area roots, with Montreal cop Eddie Dougherty going up against bomb-throwing separatists and other local tourist attractions, circa 1970.” Click here to read Chapter 1.
William Deverell: “Though I have no doubt he’d balk at the title, if Canada has a grand old man of mystery, it’s Deverell,” says Vancouver, British Columbia, author Linda L. Richards (Death Was the Other Woman). The now 76-year-old Deverell, a B.C. resident himself, debuted on the literary scene with Needles, a 1979 work that drew heavily on his long career in criminal law. He has since concocted a string of suspenseful, realistic and frequently satirical novels featuring barrister Arthur Beauchamp, including April Fool, which in 2006 won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from the Crime Writers of Canada organization. This author’s most recent book is I’ll See You in My Dreams (2012), which looks back at Beauchamp’s first murder case, in 1962, and Vancouver’s early “alternative culture” days.
Louise Penny: Torontonian Penny was a radio host and journalist before taking up novel-writing. She introduced her now-popular series character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec, in Still Life (2006) and has since followed that up with eight more books set around the Quebecois village of Three Pines, including Bury Your Dead, which picked up the 2011 Nero Award, and last year’s The Beautiful Mystery. Marilyn Rose, a professor in the Department of English at Ontario’s Brock University and co-creator of the online database CrimeFictionCanada, says that “all of [Penny’s] novels are marked by great elegance and intelligence as well as by considerable empathy for human complexity and the human condition.”
Giles Blunt: A sometime screenwriter with credits that include work on Law & Order, Blunt set his first novel—a psychological thriller titled Cold Eye (1989)—in New York City. But it was his 2001 police procedural, Forty Words for Sorrow, that captured both the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger Award and the interest of New York Times critic Marilyn Stasio (who applauded that book’s “crisp prose and the surprising kindness of [Blunt’s] insights into suffering and madness”). Forty Words also launched Giles’ series, set in isolated northern Ontario, which stars defiant but compassionate police detective John Cardinal and his younger, French-Canadian partner, Lisa Delorme. Kevin Burton Smith calls Giles’ atmospherically rich books “as unabashedly Canadian as a hockey stick.” The most recent Cardinal entry is last year’s Until the Night, but Linwood Barclay recommends a previous title, By the Time You Read This (2007), which he characterizes as “heartbreaking.”
Gail Bowen: “Smart, proto-chick lit” is how Linda Richards describes Bowen’s mysteries featuring Joanne Kilbourn, a widowed mother, political commentator and university professor with a rather astonishing proclivity for getting involved in criminal matters across Saskatchewan, where the author makes her home. Deadly Appearances (1990) was the opening chapter in Kilbourn’s adventures, with last year’s Kaleidoscope—which found Kilbourn mixed up in the violent fallout from a redevelopment project in the provincial capital, Regina—being the 13th installment. These novels are typically enriched with social and political observations, as well as native Canadian art and culture.
Howard Engel and Howard Shrier: Although Americans lay claim to dominance in private-eye fiction, these two Toronto wordsmiths have carved out distinctive territory in that subgenre. Engel introduced his regular gumshoe, Benny Cooperman, to the kinda-but-not-so-much-mean-streets of fictional Grantham, Ontario, back in 1980, when his book The Suicide Murders originally saw print. He’s since delivered 11 sequels, prominent among those being Memory Book (2005), which finds Benny hospitalized after a stroke—something that also happened to his creator in 2000—and struggling to regain his recall at the same time as he’s figuring out who tried to kill him. Like Benny, Shrier’s Jonah Geller is Jewish, but the latter’s slightly less “soft-boiled”; Barclay calls him “a cross between [Philip] Marlowe and Jim Rockford.” Geller and his partner, Jenn Raudsepp, are practiced hands at handling missing-persons cases, suspicious deaths and other P.I. fare. But Geller’s work has often taken him out of his hometown, including to New England in Boston Cream (2012). Geller’s fourth outing, though—Miss Montreal, scheduled for publication in late May—will have him probing a politically charged homicide in Quebec’s largest city.
Peggy Blair. Blair is an attorney in Ottawa, Ontario, whose first mystery novel, The Beggar’s Opera, was released earlier this year in the States. It finds a Canadian detective traveling to Havana, Cuba, intent on saving his marriage—only to wind up being the last person spotted in company with a young beggar bound for a morgue table. The investigation falls to Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, who’s already beset by ghosts of unsolved murders past and fears that dementia will claim his life as surely as it did his grandmother’s. Blair’s sequel, The Poisoned Pawn, is already out north of the border, and finds Ramirez flying to Ottawa, where he’s supposed to nab a priest in possession of pornography depicting Cuban children. “Blair’s writing is intelligent, sharp and finely paced,” says Montrealer Jacques Filippi, author of the blog The House of Crime and Mystery. “Her stories are dark but dashed with hope: they concentrate on the human condition—as much for the dead as for the living—with great sensitivity and a well-timed sense of humor.”
Of course, these are just a few Canadian crime-fictionists worth checking out. I could go on to mention scores of others, among them Andrew Pyper (Lost Girls), Anthony Bidulka, the creator of gay Saskatoon P.I. Russel Quant (Dos Equis, 2012), Mike Knowles, who’s building a series around single-monikered career criminal Wilson (Never Play Another Man’s Game, 2012) and Stephen Miller (The Messenger, 2012). That’s even before we start talking about authors who write in French.
Canada may not have as potent a presence in the world of crime and thriller fiction as some other countries, but it’s hardly content with obscurity. In fact, tomorrow, May 1, will bring the start of Canada’s National Crime Writing Month, a celebration set to conclude on May 30 with the announcement of which books and authors, among many nominees, have won the 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. Now’s as good a time as any to examine this field for yourself.