As celebrations for Canada’s birthday end, many of us are moving on to plan upcoming vacations. And some of us will take our Canadian butts to the United States.
Some of us will happily stay put. But we can still easily get a touristy peek at our neighbour to the south.
Howard Shrier was born in Montreal and worked there as a journalist, and now lives in Toronto. He’s behind the adventures of Hogtown-based private investigator Jonah Geller, whose first three adventures take him over the border into the U.S. (the fourth book, Miss Montreal, is geographically self-explanatory).
Geller is already an outsider – a Canadian, a Jew, an atheist, and someone for whom violence is all too easy a response. By all rights, this love of fists and guns should have seen him locked up; instead, he’s a detective for hire. His business partner is a lesbian Christian who’s a bit less trigger happy – and a rather more pleasant dinner companion than Geller will ever be.
High Chicago (2009, the second in the series) is a travelogue, a sneaky visit through boomtown Toronto and the Windy City by way of zoning variances, construction sites and assorted expensive real estate. Cement in a few seedy characters, holding together the brickwork of corrupt politicians and ruthless developers, and you have a violent and suspenseful tale that won an Arthur Ellis award for best novel (Shrier’s inaugural Buffalo Jump also won an Arthur Ellis).
In High Chicago, Geller is hired to find out what led a university student to kill herself.
But our PI has a hard-headed bias toward conspiracy. What if it was a murder? And the professionally angry Geller knows who the bad guy must be — a tycoon named Simon Birk. Geller just has to prove it.
Even an innocent man might resort to something untoward when stalked by someone like Geller.
High Chicago keeps the pace moving quickly, and ends on a high note. Or at least, a high rise. Though there’s a high note, too: some screaming.
High Chicago is a tour of the architecture of two cities, and of the mind of an investigator who values loyalty in his friends, and despises it in others.
Mystery and suspense novels revel in complicated heroes. Thumps DreadfulWater is another complex PI. He’s Cherokee, a former California police officer turned small-town photographer. DreadfulWater lives in the fictional Chinook, hates cold weather, and has a hard time making commitments.
The first book in the series, DreadfulWater Shows Up, was written under the pen-name Hartley GoodWeather. It apparently didn’t sell, so its author agreed to push the second installment, The Red Power Murders, under his own name, Thomas King.
King, of course, is a well-known novelist and English professor (at Guelph).
Although Canada is proud to claim him, he clearly considers himself (as do many First Nations people) a resident of the continent — born in California, King has duel Canadian-American citizenship. His non-fiction 2012 book, The Inconvenient Indian, has won numerous awards. And loyal CBC Radio listeners will recall his hilarious, late 1990s satire The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour (adapted in part from the novel Green Grass, Running Water).
But Thumps DreadfulWater is Thomas’s first detective. King has said he used a pseudonym “to separate [his] serious work from [his] detective fiction.” But the novel got lost in the thickets.
And so in an effort to boost attention, the Red Power Murders: A DreadfulWater Mystery (2006), features King’s name prominently on the cover.
In Red Power, DreadfulWater is hired as a temporary deputy by the white chief of police, and ordered to watch over a visiting author, Noah Ridge, a loud and shameless activist with the Red Power Movement (any resemblance to AIM, the American Indian Movement, is entirely intentional; ditto for the despicable FBI agents of the 1960s and ‘70s who are still kickin’ around).
After a slow three dozen pages, used to introduce the local eccentrics, a dead guy shows up, old friends and enemies pop in, and Thumps DreadfulWater finds himself recalling the politically-inspired violence of a different era.
The pace is very different than that of High Chicago; the narrative is more loose, the writing thoughtful in its occasional philosophical points and literary references.
“Thumps and Dakota had dated when they were both in Utah, but her first love had been the movement, and he had never been able to get closer than sex. It was as much his fault as hers. Fanaticism, even in its most benign forms, made him uncomfortable. There were good causes and bad causes, but in either case you were expected to suspend your disbelief. It was hard enough for him to do this at the movies. In real life, it had proved to be impossible.”
This is a lovely, funny and relaxed read, with dead bodies strewn throughout. Includes a brief cameo by the 19th century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.
The short story writer Alistair MacLeod died recently, at 77. Born in Saskatchewan, his family moved to Nova Scotia when he was 10. He grew up to write acclaimed short stories, and, as the CBC has noted, “detailed the people and culture of Cape Breton….
“His writing touched on themes of economic migration, family ties and tensions and portrayals of cultural decline.”
The Lennoxville Library has Island: The Collected Short Stories Of Alistair MacLeod. We also have his novel, No Great Mischief (1999), which won a passel of awards, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
A SMALL ISLAND
Here’s one more recommended voyage. Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island relates the travels of an American in England. It begins in 1973 at the ferry dock, as he arrives too late to find a bed. He sleeps on a bench.
Bryson went on to settle in England for a few years, though there was always a new excuse for culture shock. There’s a laugh out loud moment on almost every page. The judgmental Bryson dates from a time when racism was unacceptable, but effeminate men and dysmenorrhea were thought to be funny. Keep reading. There’s always another smart comment in the next sentence.
Bryson feels as sheepish and lost as any Canadian might, and tourists need to kick at the car tire in order to find their feet.
Bryson is also recommended by the readers of the library’s lunchtime reading club (it’s on hiatus for the summer, but the Brown Bags will return come the fall!).
The book’s filed in non-fiction, at 914.204. (Fiction is filed alphabetically, by author).
– Eleanor Brown, July 4, 2014