Most readers, when they deliberate over the geographical wellsprings of modern mystery and thriller fiction, think of either the United States or Great Britain. Well, and maybe now also Nordic countries where this strain of storytelling has suddenly become as exportable a commodity as timber, petroleum and ready-to-assemble furniture. Somewhere behind those sources might fall Ireland, South Africa, South America and Australia, which are slowly but surely establishing themselves as beguiling backdrops for tales of a felonious bent.
But Canada? Despite a history of contributions to this genre that dates back at least to the early 19th century, the Western Hemisphere’s largest nation still doesn’t receive the attention it deserves—especially from crime-fiction followers in the States.
“American audiences do tend to be attracted to stories set in faraway places, we are told—but Canada, which is not well-known by Americans, generally speaking, may not strike American readers as particularly exotic,” says Marilyn Rose, a professor of English at Ontario’s Brock University, who, with colleague Jeannette Sloniowski, has edited the forthcoming Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Detective Fiction, Film, and Television (Wilfrid Laurier University Press) and created the online database CrimeFictionCanada. “It seems to be seen as a rather more rustic, ice-and-snow version of the United States, though with a decidedly more leftist bent. This monochromatic version of a hugely diverse nation to the north may not have intrinsic appeal to American readers....Certainly publishers in the past have tended not to be confident that they can drum up interest in Canadian-set stories in the American marketplace....”
Such concerns may inhibit the creativity of Canadian wordsmiths.
“It’s not unheard of,” explains Toronto-based thriller writer Linwood Barclay (Trust Your Eyes), “for authors up here to be advised that if they want their book to do well outside Canada, they might want to think about setting it somewhere other than Canada, which really annoys people up here. Writing and nationalism are very intertwined here, because Canada for so long has had to live in the shadow of American cultural influences. We want to exert our own cultural identity, but at the same time know that may affect commercial success.”
Kevin Burton Smith, the Montreal-born editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, quips that U.S. book buyers view Canada as “the Great White Yawn.”
“England is exotic,” he adds, “because they talk funny there and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Australia has shrimp on the barbie. And kangaroos. The French are, well, they’re the French. Mexico and Central America are full of drug cartels and guys with fierce mustaches, and Russia is packed with double agents, KGB gangsters and vodka-slurping pole dancers....
“Canada’s too similar—at least to American eyes—to be exotic....[It’s] viewed by Americans as ‘safe.’ As in boring. There’s not enough crime up north to matter, never mind read about, fictional or otherwise.”
That last preconception is a misconception, of course. Although less-populated Canada doesn’t suffer the same alarming levels of homicide, general gun violence and drug offenses that plague the United States, it has not been free of mass shootings, rapes and biker-gang violence. Deeper into the well of its past, it’s had to cope with suspicious urban conflagrations, family massacres and shootings around the Klondike gold fields of the Victorian Age. Such incidents are splendid grist for the devious imaginations of crime-fictionists.
The earliest English-Canadian crime novel might have been Walter Bates’ The Mysterious Stranger, first released in 1817. (You can access that book’s full text here.) A “high sheriff” in the eastern province of Nova Scotia, Bates found his inspiration in the real-life story of Henry More Smith, a locally notorious horse-thief, confidence man and jail-breaker. In an essay for Detecting Canada, David Skene-Melvin, a recognized authority on Canadian crime fiction, contends that “the best candidate” for first French-Canadian crime novel was probably L’influence d’un livre (The Influence of a Book), by Phillipe-Ignace-François Aubert de Gaspé, published in Quebec City in 1837.
In the years since, the roster of Canadian mysteries has stretched to embrace everything from early adventure tales starring the North-West Mounted Police (the fabled “Mounties”) to amateur-sleuth investigations and grittier private-eye outings. Adding their voices to the genre mix have been May Agnes Fleming (Lost for a Woman, 1880), Grant Allen (An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay, 1897), Hulbert Footner (The Murder That Had Everything, 1930), Frank L. Packard (Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder, 1930), and Martin Brett (Blondes Are My Trouble, aka The Darker Traffic, 1954). More recently, Vancouverite Laurence Gough (The Goldfish Bowl, 1987) and Toronto’s Eric Wright (The Night the Gods Smiled, 1984) have helped satisfy the public’s demand for police procedurals, while William Deverell’s books about Vancouver barrister Arthur Beauchamp (I’ll See You in My Dreams, 2011) address its interest in legal mysteries. And Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman (working the not-so-mean streets of fictional Grantham, Ontario), Laura Wright Douglas’ Caitlin Reece (a feminist lesbian in historic Victoria, British Columbia) and Howard Shrier’s Jonah Geller (based in Toronto) have all made their mark on gumshoe fiction.
Sadly, most of those names aren’t familiar south of the 49th Parallel, in part due to Canadian publishers’ reticence to spend heavily on promoting their works to Americans. Others are better known, however, including: Louise Penny, who writes (in A Trick of the Light and other novels) about Chief Insp. Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec; Giles Blunt, most of whose thrillers (such as By the Time You Read This) focus around John Cardinal, a homicide detective operating in Northern Ontario; and British-born Maureen Jennings, whose series featuring 1890s Toronto police detective William Murdoch (A Journeyman to Grief) served as the basis for the widely broadcast CBC-TV program Murdoch Mysteries, recently renewed for a seventh season.
Then there are those authors who, because their stories tend to take place beyond Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, are often not thought of as being Canadian.
British ex-pat Peter Robinson, for instance, has been a resident of Canada since the mid-1970s, but sets his award-winning series about Det. Chief Insp. Alan Banks (Watching the Dark) primarily in England’s Yorkshire district. Owen Laukkanen calls Vancouver home, but neither of the two thrillers he’s penned so far—The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise—has its action rooted there. Linda L. Richards lives on a tranquil island off the coast of British Columbia, but grounds her books about Kitty Pangborn, a P.I.’s resourceful Girl Friday, in Depression-era Los Angeles (Death Was the Other Woman). Alan Bradley grew up in Ontario, and later relocated to Saskatchewan and British Columbia; yet his popular series starring preteen genius Flavia de Luce (Speaking from Among the Bones) unfurls in the English countryside of the 1950s. And though Linwood Barclay was born in the States, moved north of the border just prior to his 4th birthday and later became a humor columnist for the Toronto Star, his circuitous thrillers find their backdrops outside his present homeland.
Barclay acknowledges that his fiction contains few clues to his nationality. “I think it mostly comes through with the use of phrases I don’t even realize are not North American–wide. Washroom, instead of restroom, for example....And my heroes are probably a bit more held back, reserved. A classic Canadian giveaway.”
But it’s more than terminology or temperament that sets Canadian crime fiction apart, as I’ll explain in my next column.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine. He comes honestly by his fondness for all things Canadian: His favorite grandfather was born and reared in British Columbia.