Quill and Quire

John McFetridge

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Waiting for a break

Acclaimed crime writer John McFetridge shifts his sights to 1970s Montreal in his latest novel

John McFetridge (photo: Fantavious Fritz)

John McFetridge (photo: Fantavious Fritz)

John McFetridge has earned his share of critical plaudits for his gritty crime novels, including frequent favourable comparisons to the revered master of literary concision, Elmore Leonard. A Q&Q reviewer once noted that his prose “grabs you by the throat and squeezes until you agree to read one more page, just one more page.”

All that awaits is the elusive commercial breakthrough and foreign sales that would make him a household name among fans of the genre. Maybe his moment has arrived. Influential U.S. book-review publication Kirkus reckons that McFetridge’s latest “might finally be the one.” Black Rock, the first of the writer’s books set in his hometown of Montreal, is flagged as a “spring breakout,” alongside titles by such bankable stars as Benjamin Black and Peter Robinson.

Situated during the 1970 October Crisis, Black Rock (ECW Press) is a stylistic departure from McFetridge’s four previous efforts, all set in Toronto. Compared to the machine-gun patter of his earlier style, the new novel strikes more of a balance between dialogue and exposition, although not to the point of windy, authorial intrusion.

“People kind of go overboard with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good writing, but I agree with his advice against the writer sticking his nose in,” says McFetridge. “I like the characters to tell their own stories. I haven’t done anything interesting. The characters have.”

In the years since the publication of his 2006 debut, Dirty Sweet, McFetridge hasn’t wanted for advice on how to hit the bestseller jackpot. An acquaintance even suggested he consider moving the action to somewhere sexier – say, for instance, Boston.

“It’s an old cliché, but setting is a character in crime fiction,” says McFetridge, who has lived in Toronto since 1992, but spent the first 30 or so years of his life in Montreal. “You can’t get the character of a city from Google Maps. And I’m not going to move to Boston for five years just to write a book.”

Besides, plenty of successful procedurals have contrived murder and mayhem in less than glamorous locales, from sparsely inhabited southern Sweden and other generally peaceful sites that have served as the blood-soaked backdrop of the Scandinavian crime-fiction boom, to Quebec’s Eastern Townships, home to Louise Penny’s internationally successful Inspector Gamache novels. Hell, Elmore Leonard set a good chunk of his oeuvre in Detroit, of all places.

When veteran publisher Jack David considers all the obstacles facing McFetridge and other emerging crime writers, location doesn’t register a blip. Far more problematic is the precipitous decline of book coverage in the popular press, as well as the rapid disappearance of bookstores, including specialty shops catering to mystery and crime readers. As co-founder of ECW, a small Toronto-based press with a special interest in crime stories, David has handled all of McFetridge’s novels. Not so long ago, he might have promoted Black Rock by sending its author on the road. No longer.

“Ten or 15 years ago, I could name you mystery bookstores up and down the East and West Coasts of the U.S. – in Chicago, in Indianapolis, all over the place,” David says. “You’d go into the bookstore. Thirty people would show up. The author would sign books. And you’d build up a little buzz in that place. Without that bookstore support, it’s more and more difficult to break an author out.”

Today, David and other publishers shop their wares at large gatherings of fans, including the annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention (scheduled for this fall in Long Beach, California), while also crossing their fingers and hoping for reviews – any reviews – and, even better, an occasional prize nomination. If an eventual breakthrough does occur, it can have a positive impact on an author’s back catalogue, as happened, for instance, with Toronto veteran Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series.

“It wasn’t until book seven, eight, or nine that he actually broke out,” David says. “But for every Peter Robinson, there are 50 other writers who are waiting to break out.”

Initially intimidated by the idea of writing a novel, McFetridge studied TV writing at the Toronto Film Centre in 2002, followed by stints as a location scout and, later, as a screenwriter. (His credits include the CTV police drama The Bridge.)

“People who wrote books seemed really smart, well-read, had travelled a lot – and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t any of those things,” says McFetridge, who now writes novels full-time.

Black Rock is a carefully researched but fictionalized account of the hunt for a Montreal serial murderer, dubbed “the Vampire Killer,” who likely would have made more of a sensation if the press and police hadn’t been focused on the string of FLQ bombings and kidnappings rocking the city during the October Crisis.

The novel introduces readers to a fictional cop, Eddie Dougherty, a young constable who takes it upon himself to investigate the murders. An evocative period piece, it is littered with references to iconic events, including 1970’s Festival Express, a cross-Canada rock ’n’ roll tour that featured the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, and other famed musical artists of the time. The Montreal stop on the tour, scheduled for St. Jean Baptiste Day, was cancelled for fear of rioting and violence.

McFetridge, who was 11 in 1970, vaguely recalls the climate of terror, including the occasion when he and his mother had to evacuate a department store while police searched for a bomb.

“The issue for me, in 1970, was that we couldn’t go out for Halloween after dark,” he recalls. “We had to go out in the daytime, when most people were at work.”

While researching newspaper archives to refresh his memory of the period, McFetridge stumbled upon a reference to the Vampire murders in an article from Montreal’s The Gazette.

“As I started to learn more about the actual story, I thought I’d fictionalize stuff if I needed to for the novel, but for the most part I was able to work with the way it actually was, because there was so much material there.”

Black Rock is being presented as “an Eddie Dougherty Mystery,” marking McFetridge’s first stab at an ongoing protagonist. Dougherty, called “Dog-eh-dee” by his Francophone colleagues, is a novice patrolman with aspirations of working his way up into the ranks of detective. In the process, he gets his first taste of the “sexual revolution” in a relationship with an independent-minded McGill graduate student who has an academic interest in serial killers.

“I didn’t want a grouchy, cynical, old detective who had seen it all,” McFetridge says of Dougherty. “I wanted somebody who was experiencing things for the first time.”

Future novels in the series will be set against the notorious 1972 nightclub fire at the Bluebird Café, the 1976 Montreal Olympics and Parti Québécois’ election win later that year, and the first referendum in 1980, with the Anglophone exodus from Montreal as a backdrop.

“It’s not that I want to write a novel directly about that movement of people, but I thought it would be one of the things that went through the books,” McFetridge says. “It’s still an event fraught with emotion. Where is the big CanLit novel about that period?”

It doesn’t necessarily add up to grist for your typical police procedural, but his publisher is optimistic it will prove a winning recipe.

“I’m hoping that this is going to be some kind of breakout,” says David. “I’m hoping that John has found a little crack that he can walk through.”

From the June 2014 issue