BOOKS

Murder, they wrote

The art of suspense in Canadian thrillers

YVONNE COX October 24 1988
BOOKS

Murder, they wrote

The art of suspense in Canadian thrillers

YVONNE COX October 24 1988

Murder, they wrote

BOOKS

The art of suspense in Canadian thrillers

Crime and mystery writing usually depends on a traditional formula: one engaging hero, a criminal act, myriad suspects and an abundance

of clues. In addition to holding an addictive appeal for readers, the form is particularly attractive to writers because of its straight-

forward—and proven— style of storytelling. In Canada, authors have come to the style from some unexpected sources—including law and academia. And this fall, they have written more than half a dozen thrillers, making it one of the strongest seasons ever in Canadian crime and mystery fiction. Award-winning writers Eric Wright, a college professor, and Howard Engel, a onetime radio producer, are both back with their appealing sleuths. William Deverell is again drawing on his background as a lawyer to deliver a new courtroom mystery, while Tim WynneJones, best known as a children’s author, has just released a new imaginative fantasy for adults. Former journalists Charles Templeton and Ron Base continue to chart careers as mystery writers with new books this season.

And veteran newsman Scott Young proves himself a

skilful newcomer to the scene.

In A Question of Murder {Collins, $22.95), Wright has returned with Charlie Salter, the mild-mannered Toronto police inspector whose down-to-earth style has graced five previous whodunits. This time, Salter investigates an explosion that kills a man in the city’s trendy Yorkville shopping area during a royal visit. Meanwhile, changes at headquarters lead him to contemplate retirement, just as his teenage son, Seth, embarks on a personal crusade against society’s neglect of the elderly. In fact, Seth wants to play protector to his curmudgeonly grandfather, but the older man soon takes his irritation out on his own son, the inspector. “Tell that kid to stop it,” Salter’s father orders after Seth has delivered a stack of pamphlets about “everything to do with being bloody old.” As in

previous Salter mysteries, the hero’s endearing humanity upstages the plot, but that is precisely what readers have come to expect from his creator.

Benny Cooperman, too, is a gumshoe with a heart of gold. He is a well-known fixture in Grantham, Ont., Engel’s fictional town on the

Niagara Peninsula, but in A Victim Must Be Found (Penguin, $22.95), the author’s sixth Cooperman mystery, Cooperman must venture into a part of the community where he clearly does not belong. When a client who has hired him to investigate some shady art dealings is stabbed to death—and some of the most prominent citizens of Grantham fall under suspicion—Cooperman must wade into the local cultural scene.

He discovers theft, adultery, corruption and long-standing grudges, all of which lead him into a rather unlikely flirtation with the attractive daughter of an art patron—and, ultimately, to a satisfactory wrap-up of a complicated case. Cooperman remains a comfortable-as-old-shoes eccentric, but there have been changes: he has moved from his old rooming house into an apartment—even

though his mother, who no longer nags him so much, thinks he should have moved back home. Perhaps even Cooperman is beginning to outgrow tiny Grantham.

Another likable sleuth makes an impressive debut in Murder in a Cold Climate (Macmillan, $19.95), a crime mystery by award-winning journalist Young set in the Northwest Territories. In a masterfully crafted novel, Young blends plot, atmosphere and character into an absorbing and lively slice of contemporary life in the Canadian North in the middle of winter. As the book opens, his hero, Matthew Kitologitak—a middle-aged Inuk RCMP inspector whose persistence and self-deprecating humor make up for what he lacks in height and brawn—is on loan as a native bureaucrat to the department of northern affairs. There, writes Young, he is “polite with deputy ministers

and deferential with the political ministers who come and go like migrating geese.” And, although married, he has an ongoing relationship with an Inuk CBC broadcaster.

The mystery gets under way when Kitologitak returns to active duty, as a favor to an RCMP superior, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a bush plane. When clues connect the vanished aircraft to a drug ring—and to the brutal murder of a leading native-rights spokesman—the inspector sets off in hot pursuit by dogsled, bush plane and snowmobile. Along the way, readers are introduced to a variety of intriguing characters—including a woman dogsled racer and a fur trapper who lost his legs to frostbite— who bring the North vividly to life.

With his fifth novel, Deverell conjures up a very different world—that of rock ’n’ roll. To

research Platinum Blues (McClelland and Stewart, $24.95), the author went on the road with Canadian rock star Bryan Adams and the Vancouver band Loverboy, as well as studying famous music plagiarism cases. That legwork, coupled with his legal background, makes for a courtroom drama filled with gritty, authentic detail. Deverell's lawyer-hero is Oliver Gulliver, who combines legal work with his role as mayor of Foolsgold, a small town in northern California.

Gulliver emerges as one of the season’s most engaging heroes: a widowed father whose slide into uneventful middle age is interrupted when his 20-year-old daughter brings home a new boyfriend. He is C. C. Gilley, a gravel-voiced Vancouver rock star on the comeback trail. But Gilley’s long-anticipated return to the hit parade is thwarted when a rival artist plagiarizes his promising new song and beats him to the charts.

Gulliver takes on the case, bridging the generation gap while playing David to a record-company Goliath. Along the way, he falls in love with a music executive who leads him to wonder, as she goes off to powder her nose, “What brand of powder is this, South American?” Deverell handles his story with witty aplomb, guiding it to the finish with intricate plots and fast-track prose.

Like Deverell, Templeton and Base draw on their professional backgrounds in their new thrillers: both books feature corrupt TVevangelist villains and journalist heroes. But while Templeton—once an evangelist himself—approaches his subject with heavyweight seriousness, former journalist Base proves himself a lightweight in the category. Templeton’s fifth novel, World of One (Doubleday, $24.95), tackles an earnest theme— the power of the media and its potential for exploitation by malevolent forces. Set in the United States in 1995, the novel focuses on Oscar Gladden, an extremely obese evangelist with humble beginnings in Toronto’s rundown Parkdale neighborhood. Because of the

sex-scandal downfall of several TV preachers in the 1980s, Gladden’s ministry emerged to dominate the airwaves. His vacuous religious beliefs are based, writes the author, on “the commonly accepted North American shibboleths about God, family, success and happiness.”

While his followers amuse themselves at a church theme park in California and improve themselves at a church-run chain of fitness centres and meditation temples,

Gladden immerses himself in the

good life—food, drink and sex—by using funds he siphons off charitable donations. Then, Tony Carpenter, a disillusioned newspaper reporter, is tempted by curiosity and big money to become Gladden’s public relations man. Their alliance is uneasy to begin with, but when Gladden commits a brutal murder, Carpenter vows to expose his criminal megalomania. Templeton successfully

holds the reader’s attention—as long as he sticks to his story. Unfortunately, the narrative frequently veers off into preachy rants about the network news business and the decline of TV evangelism.

Splendido (Macmillan, $19.95), the third novel by former movie critic Base, is a virtual carbon copy of his previous efforts: all surface glitz and whiz-bang prose. Base passes off name-brand preferences as character development, serves up a truckload of bad guys

in the place of a credible plot and offers gratuitous servings of sex to keep the action churning. Again, the hero is the champagnedrinking Tom Coward, a sometime journalist now living with sultry movie star Lacey Bergen and flailing away at a screenplay.

One of the strongest seasons ever in Canadian crime and mystery fiction

With both his love life, and his writing career in trouble, Coward takes Bergen off to Europe for an ill-fated holiday on the Orient Express. There, he becomes a suspect in his lover’s supposed murder, falls for the widow of a nasty Caribbean dictator and gets mixed up in a plot concerning the videotaped sexual misdemeanors of a TV evangelist who is considering running for the U.S. presidency. But

setting characters in exotic Agatha Christie territory does not automatically make it a good mystery. Despite the glitz, Base’s novel falls as flat as leftover champagne.

With his third novel for adults, Fastyngange (Lester & Orpen Dennys, $15.95), author Wynne-Jones has produced the most fantastical story of the season. It is a psychological thriller whose protagonist confronts insanity through a mysterious oubliette—a hole leading to a deep shaft in a

crumbling English castle, a hole that actually talks. With the hole as the narrator, WynneJones paints a convincing portrait of the madness that forces a Toronto nurse, Alexis Forgeben, onto a romantic and horrifying quest. Her journey ultimately leads to a recognition of the psychic trauma at the root of the disintegration of her marriage—and her mind. What Alexis discovers in England and on a terrifying ocean voyage home is nothing short of a parallel universe that her mind has constructed to give a perverse logic to her madness.

Wynne-Jones proves himself a master at creating sinister mood and atmosphere—and at counterpointing skilfully evoked gothic terrors with wit and humor. But the novel is flawed. When the action moves from the ruined castle across the ocean and back to Toronto, the talking hole ceases to function effectively as the storyteller. And Alexis’s insanity appears out of proportion to its cause. Still, like the best of this season’s mystery writers, Wynne-Jones is building on one of the country’s newest literary traditions— while filling Canadians’ growing appetite for suspenseful stories, well told.

YVONNE COX