There is a good – possibly great – crime novel to be written about Calgary’s economic boom in the 1970s, when newcomers with dollar signs dancing in their eyes clashed with local residents resisting gentrification, with wide-ranging and lethal consequences. But A Magpie’s Smile, written by journalism professor and former reporter Eugene Meese, is no Calgary Confidential. Not even close.
The raw materials hold some promise, starting with an opening chapter where a bulldozer lunges upon a house in mid-construction “like a giant one-pawed mechanical bear clawing at the flanks of a cornered deer.” The foundation of the house will ultimately reveal a dead body, which won’t be identified by our hero, local police detective John Jacob “Jake” Fry, until midway through the novel – by which point he’s on the trail of a nasty serial killer who is waging his own battle against the boom tide. But well before then, A Magpie’s Smile succumbs to the weight of clunky exposition and heavy-handed similes: “The rain was falling like polite applause.”
In particular, Meese appears enthralled by sentence strings that feature a kind of incantatory repetition: “He hated games. He could not play games. He had never been able to play games.” But why belabour the point with another full page describing the games Fry does or does not play? And Meese returns again and again to this syntactical well: “He could not give the meaning. He did not have the meaning. He did not get the meaning.” “That would be a mistake. He could not afford a mistake. He would not make a mistake.” These exercises in stylistic repetition only underscore how A Magpie’s Smile has lost its way.