Grounded in the Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice and original sin, the unflinching moral vision of David Adams Richards has set his work in opposition to the relativist, humanist worldview espoused by the majority of Canadian authors, critics, and academics. That conflict has led to consistent misreadings of his work, with critics either praising Richards for his “compassion” (without acknowledging its source) or dwelling on the “misery” experienced by his characters. In both cases, the value Richards places on human suffering as a necessary agent of spiritual redemption is either downplayed or ignored.
It doesn’t help that Richards (speaking through his novels’ narrators and protagonists) so openly loathes the pieties of the Canadian liberal left. In his books, social workers, teachers, union leaders, and especially left-leaning academics are revealed as impediments or even agents of destruction to the vulnerable souls they are tasked to protect. Intellectual hypocrisy is the greatest sin in Richards’s moral universe, and he flushes it out at every opportunity.
In Richards’s latest novel, the conflict is raised to a kind of dialectical blood sport, in which one man’s relentless quest to solve a decades-old crime pits him against a loose cabal of morally corrupt leftists, civil servants, politicians, and social workers.
That man is John Delano, a brilliant RCMP officer whose long career and personal tragedies have left him broken and alone, mistrusted by his colleagues for his uncompromising ethics and at odds with a society that values ideological correctness over personal honour. Delano is also haunted by the disappearance of his beloved stepson and his experiences on a UN mission during the genocide in Rwanda, which left him with PTSD symptoms. The protracted strain of searching for the boy has destroyed his marriage and sent him on an extended drinking binge that nearly ends his career.
Delano is drawn out of his despair when he receives an anonymous letter about a teenage boy who went missing in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1999 – a disappearance that, according to official records, never happened. The letter, readers learn, is from a reformed petty criminal named Melon Thibodeau, who lived in the same foster home as the missing boy, and who witnessed him leaving home and never returning.
Drawn to the case by his failure to find his own stepson, and sensing some type of cover up, Delano begins to investigate the letter’s claims. His enquiries soon attract the suspicion of the “provincial coordinator of child abandonment,” Melissa Sapp, a former social worker who tried to stop Delano from removing his stepson from foster care, and who views him as an unrepentant woman hater.
Sapp, as Richards characterizes her, is the embodiment of everything wrong in the modern world: an intellectually arrogant hypocrite who uses left-wing pieties to mask and satisfy her will to power. She’s also a feminist, a position that, for reasons never specified, infuriates Delano. In one passage, Richards claims that Delano, a career police officer, has seen as many “self-serving and wounded feminists as chauvinists.” If so, Delano’s not paying attention or, more likely, seeing only what he wants to see.
In the past, Richards would have assigned Sapp a more secondary role, keeping her largely to the sidelines while revealing the negative effects of her actions as they unfold in the lives of other characters. Unfortunately, she looms large throughout Principles to Live By, without ever achieving three-dimensional status. She and other representatives of liberalism and the left – including a UN special envoy referred to as “the Lion of Justice” – are described with hectoring sarcasm, as if Richards’s contempt prevents him from elucidating their inner lives and motivations (a notable omission, given his talent for creating believable villains). Too often, the invective against these characters interrupts the narrative flow and exhausts the reader’s patience.
The other problem here is that Richards reserves his anger exclusively for the left, bypassing such obvious targets as the rich families who for centuries ran the Maritimes like personal plantations and the corporate class that has replaced them. Where is the anger at the CEOs who shuttered the manufacturing sector, forcing the working class to juggle low-paying retail and service jobs merely to survive?
Luckily, there is a lot more going on here. Delano is one of Richards’s finest creations: a tormented, self-destructive man hounded by his own goodness. When he fully engages the forces of smug ideological correctness that block his pursuit of justice, he can be bitterly funny and insightful. Richards also embeds a believable, absorbing police procedural in the midst of a novel primarily concerned with one man’s struggle for salvation