BOOKS

Murder, they wrote

Canadians turn out strong mystery novels

DIANE TURBIDE October 15 1990
BOOKS

Murder, they wrote

Canadians turn out strong mystery novels

DIANE TURBIDE October 15 1990

Murder, they wrote

BOOKS

Canadians turn out strong mystery novels

Ten years ago, Canada was a crime-free country—at least in the literary

sense. Mystery fans had to rely on British and American authors for their share of mayhem, either of the genteel English-village sort or the hard-boiled American variety. But during the 1980s, domestic murder statistics rose dramatically as a wave of detective writing hit Canadian bookshelves. Two awardwinning Toronto-based writers, Howard Engel and Eric Wright, became the literary godfathers of crime in Canada, creating two durable characters: Engel’s private investigator Benny Cooperman, and Wright’s police inspector Charlie Salter. Their

fictional sleuths paved the

way for a mob of crime-solvers across the country. Now, the territory is crowded with male and female amateur gumshoes, hardened homicide cops and private eyes from small towns and big cities. This fall, a number of seasoned crime novelists are offering their latest, while a few newcomers to the form make their debuts—with mixed results.

The best is, arguably, Engel’s Dead and Buried (Penguin, $24.95), the seventh in a series featuring Benny Cooperman, the gentle, wisecracking private eye of the fictional southern Ontario city of Grantham. Benny takes on a case involving the illegal dumping of toxic wastes around his home town. A widow believes that her husband, a truck driver transporting the waste, did not die in an industrial accident but was murdered for knowing too much. The case, which eventually leads to two more murders, reunites Benny with a former client and her ex-husband’s powerful family, who own a waste-disposal company.

The appeal of Engel’s books centres on the mild-mannered Cooperman himself, who turns most of the tough-guy conventions on their head. He is a creature of habit who dutifully visits his parents, usually for one of his mother’s bad meals, and who describes his physique as “Charles Atlas before he sent away for help.” And Engel adds surprising twists to familiar crime scenarios: in one hilarious scene in a parking lot, Benny’s parents, out for a night at the theatre, unknowingly interrupt a bunch

of thugs who are trying to kidnap him. His mother insists that her son join them for a preshow dinner—an invitation that Benny is only too glad to take up.

Benny solves the crime through persistent

digging and his canny knowledge of how his town operates. Although acutely aware of just how far he is from being invited to join the country club, he understands the workings of the city’s Old Boys network. And he maintains a lively string of contacts, ranging from waitresses to police officers, whom he went to grade school with. It makes for plausible solutions when Benny finally ties up the loose ends.

Small-town satire also figures in journalist Walter Stewart’s first mystery novel, Right Church, Wrong Pew (Macmillan, $19.95).

From the time Carlton Withers opens his front door to find “a soft breeze frolicking” and a dead body, his goodnatured cynicism sets the tone for the lighthearted tale. There are few signs of the author of Shrug—Trudeau in Power (1971) or Towers of Gold, Feet of Clay, his 1982 exposé of Canadian banking. In Right Church, Wrong Pew, Stewart—a tenacious journalist who was once described as a bull terrier when he is working on a story— takes a holiday, Set in central Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes district, in the fictional town of Silver Lakes, the novel is short on suspense. But it is populated by a collection of lovable rustics, and it is a rollicking satire on small-town journalism. Carlton, a likable if not particular-

ly competent reporter for the Silver Falls Lancer, immediately comes under suspicion for the murder of his old enemy Ernie, whose stabbed body appears on his doorstep. The murder weapon is a sharp tool owned by Carlton, and the ostensible motive is that a drunken Ernie killed Carlton’s parents in a car accident a few years earlier. With the help of Hanna, a pushy but provocative photographer, and his old friend Hanson, Carlton sets out to solve the murder in order to save his own skin. It is obvious by page 46 who the guilty party really is—a cardinal sin in mystery writing. But Stewart skilfully steers a parade of oddball suspects, red herrings and legitimate clues towards a neat and satisfying conclusion.

Journalism of another sort figures in Alison Gordon’s Safe at Home (McClelland & Stewart, $24.95), the author’s second crime novel featuring baseball reporter Kate Henry. Gordon herself is a former baseball reporter who covered the Toronto Blue Jays for The Toronto Star from 1979 to 1983, and as in her acclaimed first novel, Dead Pull Hitter, the author’s experience in sports journalism makes for some entertaining passages. In one part, Kate muses on the advantages of being a baseball writer with certain men: “I have known some of them rather well, for whom I am a fantasy come true: a woman they can go to bed with and talk baseball afterwards.”

The new book deals with a serial killer who is terrorizing young boys in Toronto. Two major

subplots—Kate’s romance with the investigating police officer and her friendship with a homosexual baseball player—are engaging counterpoints to the grim business of tracking the murderer. Unfortunately, those elements do not make up for the plot’s major weakness: it is apparent halfway through the clue-strewn book, before Kate herself figures it out, just who the culprit is. Safe at Home lacks an essential ingredient—mystery.

A Very Profer Death (Random House, $22.95) by Alex Jumper also involves a romance between the main character and an investigating police officer. The book’s dust jacket bills it as “the first in a trilogy,” and includes a picture of a disguised woman identi-

fied only as a leading Canadian author. In fact, Juniper is a pseudonym for Janette Turner Hospital. Hospital, author of five previous fictional works, proves with A Very Proper Death that she is a promising mystery writer as well.

Hospital uses classic elements of suspense—a beautiful and mysterious woman, a menacing stranger, threatening phone calls— and combines them with contemporary touches to create a page-turner. Mami Verstak is an attractive businesswoman with a big secret. A man who knows her secret makes anonymous phone threats. Another man, a contractor she has hired, is murdered in a drug-dealing neighborhood. Soon, a love affair develops between Verstak and Jake Murphy, the police detective investigating the death. Meanwhile Verstak’s ex-husband, a homosexual who is dying of AIDS, stands to inherit millions from his manipulative mother. In Hospital’s densely populated tale, almost every character may be involved in a scheme to hurt her.

Her writing style is crisp. And although her characters’ motives are sometimes farfetched, she convincingly fleshes them out with details about their private lives. One amusing passage details a meeting between Jake and the stem

nun who teaches his 13-year-old son: the nun complains about the boy drawing pictures of naked women. But, at times, the complexities of the plot seem strained. Too many things happen to Verstak, too many people are involved and, finally, it is difficult to understand why she has kept her secret for so long. Still, Verstak remains a sympathetic character, and the overwrought elements of the plot do not overwhelm an essentially compelling story.

With the disappointing Riviera Blues (Macmillan, $19.95), however, seasoned mystery writer Jack Batten has delivered a travelogue instead of a mystery. The story moves from the stolid, tree-lined avenues of Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale district to the back alleys and beaches of Monaco. It is Batten’s third novel featuring

Crang, a middle-aged lawyer who solves crimes in his spare time. This time, Crang promises his former father-in-law that he will track down Jamie Haddon, a young protégé in the family firm who is missing in Monaco— where Crang just happens to be going on vacation. It is not long before Crang learns that his former wife, Pamela, has been having an affair with Jamie and cheating on her second husband, Archie. She, too, is concerned about her lover’s whereabouts. The entire cast, including Archie and Crang’s girlfriend, Annie, travels to Monaco in search of Jamie.

Riviera Blues is a complex novel of intrigue and betrayal, but the story’s momentum is slowed by a welter of unnecessary detail. The book is almost over before a murder is even committed. Batten devotes five pages to a description of Crang trying to figure out how to work Jamie’s computer. And the chase scenes seem to weave endlessly through darkened streets. Even the trail left by the elusive Jamie is more confusing than it is suspenseful.

Medora Sale’s third novel covers some of the same affluent Toronto territory featured in Batten’s book. But Murder in a Good Cause (Penguin, $22.95) has many of the mystery

novel’s requisite ingredients: greed, fantastic wealth and a cast of suspicious characters. At an elegant Toronto party, wealthy German actress Clara von Hohenkammer dies, poisoned by a dose of cyanide slipped into her herbal tea. Homicide detective John Sanders quickly finds an array of suspects that includes both of Clara’s headstrong daughters, as well as her ambitious son-in-law. The gruffly likable Sanders has to find time to contend with another pressing dilemma: his on-again-offagain affair with sharp-witted photographer Harriet Jeffries.

Sale rarely strays from the timeworn conventions of the murder mystery. But she is a deft and imaginative plotter who successfully creates a convoluted secondary story line involving international terrorism, tasteful sex scenes and a detailed lesson in photographic techniques. The author also places suspensefilled sequences in unexpected locales: Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, in particular, proves a suitably ominous setting for a game of cat-and-mouse between a killer and his terrified prey. And while some of the characters are sketchy, Sanders and Jeffries, who appeared in Sale’s last novel, Murder in Focus, are engaging. Their hesitant stab at romance is both believable and oddly touching—qualities that elevate Murder in a Good Cause above the level of most formula fiction. Despite some minor flaws, the book is a solid contribution to Canada’s growing literary rap sheet.

DIANE TURBIDE

with

TASHA DIAMANT

and

CECILY ROSS

in Toronto