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Book Reviews

Death of a Sunday Writer

by Eric Wright

Strangers Among Us: A Karl Alberg Mystery

by L.R. Wright

Classic Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detectives are urban updates of the Old West cowboy: tough guy loners, ropin’ and ridin’ outside the confounded confines of the family, who find females appealing so long as they resemble cattle. With the evolution of literary crime-solving though comes the slide of such masculine models. Instead of fedoras and phallic handguns, sleuths now wear cashmere sweaters and grip a tight leash with a faithful pooch on the other end.
Gail Bowen’s fifth Joanne Kilbourne mystery, A Killing Spring, demonstrates the kinds of shifts that can occur when the hard-boiled mystery formula gets a female protagonist. Bowen, who won the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian Crime novel for the excellent A Colder Kind of Death (1994), has ignited a modern female hero: Joanne Kilbourne teaches political science in Regina, is a TV commentator on a weekly panel show, and a mother who shops and cooks for grown and growing children. She also runs with two aging dogs and listens to Wynton Marsalis. In A Killing Spring, this 50-year-old widow tries to figure out who dispatched a popular and newly wed journalism professor. While issues of parenting and reproductive rights enhanced and deepened Bowen’s last book, characters in this one – gay journalists, a wife-beater and victim, the handicapped student who has her research ripped off and the friend with Down’s syndrome – seem like shorthand to trumpet the book’s liberal humanism. Bowen assumes we will understand the motivations of stock characters if we know their musical preferences or what they like to eat. She is wrong; the plot suffers.
In Anne M. Dooley’s first novel, Plane Death, another student is having her work rifled by a greedy academic, this time in Saskatoon, and another mom, pilot Elie Meade, tries to connect the dots between diamond exploration, her son’s rock collection, and a fatal air crash in Saskatchewan’s remote cottage country. Though the story suffers from too many coincidences, Dooley recognizes good material and she supplies the right mix of details to support a somewhat predictable plot. A woman who flies small planes for a living has great potential as a character, especially in a sleuth novel, and Elie Meade warrants more books. However, while Elie works at a non-traditional job surrounded by male co-workers, Dooley is not much interested in the evolving power relations between the sexes. Though Elie is beaten up and then manages to smear the murderer’s face on the Tarmac, she is deflated at the end of the book. Her husband, returning from a business trip, steps off the plane and Elie hopes her lipstick looks okay. As he holds up a small gold box with a large silver bow, Elie thinks, “Never mind the stitches, bruises and scrapes, this was going to be a very good night.” Capable and self-sufficient? The resolution for Elie is in the return to the sane family unit and its safe pleasures.
The women protagonists of these novels, while they voluntarily cross the domestic border into intrigue and danger, often do so with self-mockery. The tone is light, witty, and the plots circle and dip and touch down – mystery solved – in the home.
Suzanne North is wisely alert to the comic potential of women entering traditionally male fields. Seeing is Deceiving is North’s second foray into the world of sleuth Phoebe Fairfax and, owing to the popularity of her first book, North has jumped from the small and esteemed NeWest Press to McClelland & Stewart. Phoebe works for a Calgary television station as cameraman – gender neutrality aside – for “A Day in the Lifestyle,” a snoopy look at what Alberta’s haves have. In this way, she finances her real work – nature documentaries – and keeps her canine companion fed. The murder in North’s first book, Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise, took place at a trendy health spa; this one happens at the “Okotoks 1st Annual Psychic Exposition and Symposium” and involves a “SuperO ozone box” meant to pump super oxygen into the body by means of “rectal insufflation.” North, with comic timing and hip satire, manages to link this outrageous device with wife-beating. This is not Pride and Prejudice, but it’s fun. Uncle Cyrrie, Phoebe’s aging gay confidant, returns and functions as her wise comfort while the plot is driven by considerations of family loyalty and the limits of love.
Relatives can also act as flashpoints though, and the women who write crime occasionally simplify domestic violence. Bowen and North both consider wife-beating to be self-explanatory, relying on readers’ knowledge of tabloid popular psychology. But a successful crime novelist knows the importance of motivation, that a plot only reaches adequate complexity when characters do.
Toronto’s Jackie Manthorne has a lucrative beat. Her books involve the lesbian sorority of Harriet (aka Harry) Hubbley, a 50-year-old Montreal physical education teacher and amateur crime solver. Final Take is the fourth in this series and chronicles the escapades of Harry and her pals on a visit to San Francisco’s International Lesbian and Gay film festival. Lesbian mystery adventure is a popular genre; a lesbian who romances and investigates in the Sam Spade tradition has great literary possibilities. But while novice Nancy Richler, in Throwaway Angels (see review p. 31), uses the genre to explore the complexity of women’s bonds, Manthorne merely capitalizes on an established audience. Final Take is ineptly written, and any hope of a bond forming between novel and reader – crucial for mystery – is dashed by a surfeit of grammatical errors, clichés, and lazy descriptions.
L.R. Wright respects readers. The winner of this year’s Arthur Ellis Award for Mother Love, Wright continues her series starring Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg with Strangers Among Us, an articulate, intense account of clan carnage. While other women authors use home and hearth as a site of resolution and comfort, Wright explores the danger in overestimating the safety of family bonds. As Alberg plans a second marriage, he is confronted by examples of his own bad judgment, times when he misread family politics and tragedy resulted. Acknowledging the intellectual needs of her committed readership, Wright uses a complex narrative structure – and good writing – to link characters and generalize about the potential double-cross of lineage. Guilt-ridden, romantic Alberg (he wants to get married on Valentine’s Day) is not a strong silent type at all, but a feminized version of the tough cop.
And Eric Wright has dropped the guy stuff altogether, foregoing his successful Charlie Salter series to introduce Lucy Trimble, Private Detective, in Death of a Sunday Writer. Looking at the back end of a 23-year marriage, Lucy takes over a Toronto agency from a distant – and mysteriously dead – relative. She understands the lie of domestic bliss and seeks thrills while trying to adjust to an urban, upbeat setting. Though there is potential in this character, Death of a Sunday Writer (the book is without a Canadian publisher) is not a riveting introduction. Wright appears to have little affection for Lucy, drawing her in a way that ignores her wisdom and dignity. There are dangers and opportunities in urban spaces for women who leave domesticity and Wright may think Lucy belongs in a leather suit, debauching in two overtly sexual relationships, but the character and her situation do not deserve these extremes. Wright will have to give more consideration to the shift from hard-nosed tough guy to sensible older woman.
“Sensible problem-solver” is a role many women embrace, but that alone doesn’t make it stay-up-all-night reading material. In order to maintain a loyal audience and to guarantee the long healthy lives of their protagonists, mystery writers must make formula and routine tingle with invention and surprise.