Books

Written to sell

It's no mystery what is popular with the public

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999
Books

Written to sell

It's no mystery what is popular with the public

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999

Written to sell

Books

It's no mystery what is popular with the public

Until recently, among a small group of Canadian literary critics and aficionados, Trevor Ferguson was known as the finest contemporary author that most people had never heard of. His 1977 debut novel, High Water Chants, in which characters confront emotional conflicts and past tensions in a coastal island setting, and the five books that followed garnered mostly rave reviews. Yet none sold more than 700 copies, and most fell out of print. Ferguson, who lives with his wife, educator Lynne Hill, in Hudson, Que., about 70 km west of Montreal, scraped by on book advances, occasional university writer-in-residence programs, and a wellhoned skill, he says, at “making grants intended for one year extend to a yearand-a-half.” He was, he says, “happy in a way, but frustrated” by his lack of commercial success.

All that seems about to change—as Ferguson’s life already has. In 1995, exasperated by negligible sales for his fifth literary offering, The Fire Line, he decided “something had to change if I was to keep writing.” His solution: try writing a mystery thriller. The result took two years and, in dollars-and-cents terms, succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. When Ferguson’s agent, Anne McDermid, took the book, City of Ice, under the pen name of John Farrow, to publishers

in New York City in 1997, it sparked a bidding frenzy for American rights. That ended abruptly when HarperCollins, which had Canadian publishing rights, submitted an offer for what Ferguson describes as “mid-six figures in American dollars.” Sales of rights to countries including Japan and Great Britain followed. An auction for movie rights will begin after the book, recently published in Canada, goes on sale in the United States next month.

The object of that fuss is a book that is distinctly Canadian in setting but international in overall scope. City of Ice, set in the dead of winter in Montreal, stars a tough, complex, antisocial, smug and not always likable protagonist, police detective Emile CinqMars. He confronts disparate characters, from rogue cops and homeless indigents to bikers and interlopers from the RCMP, CIA and ex-KGB types gone over to the Russian Mafia. Throughout, Montreal plays a key role—an environment shot full of menace by gripping and painfully accurate descriptions of mid-winter life, and visits to the biker bars and gritty mean streets of lower-income areas.

Ferguson, 51, has lived most of his life around Montreal and knows his turf. He chose his protagonist’s surname in tribute to a legendary real-life Montreal cop of the 1960s, Jacques Cinq-Mars, who was also a loner disdainful of authority. In pairing a reluctant

Cinq-Mars with an Anglo partner, Bill Mathers, he limns the language tensions that exist even among Montreal’s finest. Some subcharacters—smooth, wealthy lawyers who front for gangsters— will be recognized by anyone familiar with Montreal’s Palais du Justice in the past two decades. In Ferguson’s able hands, the plot of Russian thugs and American spooks butting heads amidst biker gangs and turf wars seems, for the most part, not all that farfetched. As Ferguson noted in a Maclean’s interview, police estimate that there are more Russian gangs in Montreal than in London and New York combined. And the vicious ongoing biker war between Hells Angels and the Rock Machine is drawn from real life.

Not all characters and plot devices work. The ending is sensational, overly reliant on coincidence, and wraps up the characters’ dilemmas too conveniently. Some characters are unrealistic: a newspaper columnist, who would in real life earn a healthy income, is depicted living in impoverished squalor, while the main female character is so self-centred it is difficult to care about her fate, which is key to the plot. Some interchanges between cops have the forced feel of theatrical set speeches.

But overall, Ferguson, who admires the morally complex thrillers of John le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park), achieves much the same high ground. Cinq-Mars is a compelling figure, tormented but lucky enough to be burdened with a well-grounded partner, Mathers. Together, they evoke fond memories of Briton Colin Dexter’s sleuth, the troubled Insp. Morse, and his cheery sidekick, Sgt. Lewis. Cinq-Mars longs for a world in which values are more clear-cut, and knows he fits uneasily in modern grey times.

To some extent, that also describes Ferguson, who is still a bit ambivalent about his success. Despite strong pressure from his American publisher, he refused to allow the book to be published under his own name “because it is different from what I really do.” And some of his “impoverished writer friends,” he says, “have trouble adjusting to this change in my status.” But that aside, he confesses: “It is a dream to be able to focus on writing, and now I have the money to do that.” And the most tangible sign of fondness for what he has wrought, he suggests, is that Cinq-Mars, with his tics, temper and foibles, “may be used again” in a sequel.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

Some further recent Canadian crime stories, selected by Maclean’s writers and editors:

DOUBLE HELIX

By Anthony Hyde (Viking, 322pages, $32)

Anthony Hyde has been writing thrillers for 14 years, and the Ottawa author’s new novel follows to bland perfection the familiar recipe for commercial success. Throw up a judicious mix of locales both familiar (Toronto) and exotic (Venice, Rio de Janeiro). Add a nice, oh-soCanadian heroine (an innocent abroad, but plucky). Keep the characters depthless (no problem) and their conversation light. (Or even spectacularly inane—two women, both with reason to fear the other is a mortal enemy, sit down over a cup of cappuccino: ‘Tour foam is great,” one absurdly remarks.) But above all devise a plot, as the blurb writers like to say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” Stockbroker Deborah Graham stumbles into the murderous schemes of biotech company Xynex, which has secretly developed a vaccine that ensures women who take it will give birth only to boys. The potential commercial value is staggering, especially in countries with coercive single-child laws and a high premium on male offspring. Deborah’s doctor lover, Giacomo, is somehow involved, though whether as victim or accomplice she cannot be certain. So she sets out on a dangerous course to learn the truth, not least because she is pregnant with Giacomo’s child—and she is wondering about those allergy shots he arranged for her.

For all its cookie-cutter construction, Double Helix is professionally executed. The plot concept is intriguing, and the suspense skilfully built. But what really makes this otherwise superficial work linger in the mind is its weird undercurrent. After Hyde puts paid to the worst of the villains with a nice bit of poetic justice, he startlingly adds a gratuitous piece of violence—its victims are children. That brief episode and Hyde’s ambiguous epilogue combine to leave the unsettling impression that the author—in common with the vast majority of his characters—thinks Xynex’s vaccine is a good thing.

THE MOCHE WARRIOR

By Lyn Hamilton

(Berkley Prime Crime, 321 pages, $29.99)

Unsettling is the last word anyone would apply to Toronto writer Lyn Hamilton’s latest archeological mystery. Cozy, perhaps, or even cheerful, the sort of crime novel in which the victim is murdered more for the sake of having a body in the plot than from the rage and fear that provoke real-life homicides. The Moche Warrior is Hamilton’s second about Toronto antique dealer Lara McClintoch. (Her first appearance, in The Xibalba Murders, was nominated for Best First Novel by the Crime Writers of Canada Association.) Hamilton’s new book opens with McClintoch at an auction where, primarily for the satisfaction of outbidding her ex-husband, she buys a box of what she thinks are cheap Peruvian replicas. They turn out to be extremely valuable artifacts—including an exquisite golden figurine of a warrior-priest—illegally taken from the tombs of the Moche people who flourished in northern Peru 1,500 years ago. Soon, the dealer’s Yorkville shop is burglarized and her assistant severely injured. When police suspect that she is somehow involved, McClintoch travels under an alias to Peru, where she faces a vicious gang of grave robbers.

For anyone willing to make the effort required to suspend disbelief—as one instance among many, McClintoch is the sort of mystery-story character who just happens to have a Mexican revolutionary ex-lover who can easily furnish a fake passport—The Moche Warrior is a fun read. The action zips along, the sketches of life among the little-known Moche are interesting and McClintoch is an amusing, likable creation. And unlike a real archeological dig, there is no heavy lifting involved.

THE FEAST OF STEPHEN

By Rosemary Aubert

(Bridge Works Publishing, 256pages, $32.95)

Red herrings are common enough features in mysteries, but Rosemary Aubert’s title is somewhat fishy. The Feast of Stephen alludes both to a supposedly fateful date, Dec. 26, and to clues in a crossword puzzle about a variety of saints’ days. In the end, such details are largely insignificant, as are the poisoning victims—and even the identity of the murderer. Instead, the novel’s chief pleasure is the delineation of the protagonist, disgraced former judge and amateur sleuth Ellis Portal. Aubert, a former court worker, created Portal in her 1997 award-winning mystery novel, Free Reign, and has reprised him to great effect.

Portal is still indigent after being dismissed from the bench after a violent incident (which is referred to but never fully explained). His street friend Queenie convinces him to look into the deaths of some court “groupies,” whose only occupation is to watch court proceedings every day. Both Portal and Queenie are interesting studies, down-and-outers who have somehow managed to keep their dignity intact. The Toronto landscape they trudge through, from seedy homeless shelters to lavish judges’ quarters, is equally vividly drawn. Apparently, neither Aubert, who was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., but now lives in Toronto, not her American publisher, feared the locale would put readers off. A good thing, too, for character and setting are what make The Feast of Stephen a tasty morsel. □