The term “Canadian noir” sounds almost oxymoronic – as a concept, it runs contrary to both our complacently benign self-image and our international reputation as wholesome, apologetic, and frostbitten. The strange difficulty of convincing ourselves or anyone else that Canada can be both mysterious and dangerous means Canadian crime writers often face pressure to set their novels elsewhere, a trend that the international success of Louise Penny’s novels may, at long last, derail.
Yet, as studies like Jeannette Sloniowski and Marilyn Rose’s recent non-fiction anthology Detecting Canada demonstrate, Penny’s novels were preceded by a long and varied tradition of identifiably Canadian crime fiction, including noir. Véhicule Press, in its Ricochet Books line, has been reissuing some lost examples, most recently Frances Shelley Wees’s The Keys of My Prison, first released in 1956, and David Montrose’s Gambling with Fire, originally published in 1969. Both are slick, readable stories that exemplify the pleasures and the limitations of a recuperative project of this kind.
As Rosemary Aubert says in her introduction, The Keys of My Prison is a “psychological thriller” rather than a whodunit: its plot is instigated not by a specific crime but by a startling and inexplicable personality change. After a serious car accident, respected businessman and beloved husband Rafe Jonason awakens from a coma a different man. His wife Julie, herself transformed (in a neatly literal version of the novel’s central paradox) by the removal of a hideous birthmark that once covered most of her face, cannot understand what has happened. The Rafe she knew had looked past her disfigurement to her inner beauty and loved her for it: how can he have become so “hard, bitter, cruel, vindictive, coarse”? Is it possible that he is literally someone else, even though he bears all the physical scars of the man she married? Or has his brain injury revealed a deeper truth: “Are we all two souls,” Julie wonders, “warring in one body?”
Julie and her allies – including the Holmes-like forensic psychologist Dr. Merrill – set out to solve the mystery that is (or isn’t) Rafe. The result is a slyly suspenseful drama of identity theft in the spirit of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar or Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. Wees’s characters have little subtlety, but the gradual revelations of the plot are deftly handled and the novel ends with a satisfyingly deadly twist. Despite its Toronto setting, however, The Keys of My Prison is only incidentally Canadian: the Scarborough Bluffs, for instance, could as easily be any high ledge, and the split in Rafe’s character carries no symbolic burden for the nation’s two solitudes.
David Montrose’s Gambling with Fire, in contrast, draws specifically on its setting in post–Second World War Montreal for its atmosphere and story. Montrose depicts a city in transition, one in which power is shifting and opportunities for profit – or risks of loss – are there for old players and newcomers alike. This makes it just right for Franz Loebek, an emigré aristocrat and war hero now seeking a new life that will restore his sense of purpose. When a murdered former comrade bequeaths Loebek both an illicit gambling operation and a vendetta against his killer, Loebek embarks on a mission for which he must navigate a world of femmes fatales, shady toughs, and bitter regional rivalries.
Gambling with Fire has a clever and suspenseful plot, but founders on the treacherous shores of hard-boiled gimmickry: Montrose’s language is artificial without being artful, and his people are overly emotional stick figures, reacting with hyperbolic intensity to each turn in the action. Like Hammett and Chandler, though, Montrose ultimately turns our curiosity inward, away from events and toward character and morality. And like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Loebek ends his quest adrift in ethical ambiguity: “I set myself to right a wrong in my own way. That involved the breaking of laws to catch a criminal. … I can only acknowledge myself a sinner and do penance, now.”
Both The Keys of My Prison and Gambling with Fire are good literary diversions, as well as reminders that Canada should figure more largely than it usually does in histories of crime fiction. The novels themselves are distinctly vintage, a quality that has its charm but also reminds us of how much crime writing has grown and deepened in the decades since the books’ first publication. Today’s Canadian noir turns its inherited conventions to new purposes: Phonse Jessome’s newly released Disposable Souls, for instance, explores the violence and moral complexity of contemporary Halifax in terms – literary, social, and political – that bring the tradition represented by Wees and Montrose convincingly and grippingly up to date.