The Queen of Canadian Mystery

Which female Canadian author has written the best mystery novel? Who’s the Queen of Canadian Mystery? Many will say Maureen Jennings, author of the Detective Murdoch series. Others will say Louise Penny, author of the Inspector Gamache series. I say Margaret Atwood. “What the &^$#!” you say. You’re an idiot.” I know. An opinionated idiot. Let the mud fly. 😉

Before I reveal the mystery novel, I’ll relate a few arguments I’ve heard from friends. “Atwood isn’t a mystery writer.” Correct, in as much as she’s not labeled a mystery writer. “Atwood doesn’t need kudos from anyone. She’s already famous.” Also correct. “Pick someone more current.” I will, when the new Queen comes along.

Now, to the question at hand. The best mystery novel written by a female Canadian author is …. Robber Bride.

Get &^$%,” you say, “Robber Bride isn’t a genre novel. It’s literary fiction.” Yep. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a mystery, and a damn fine one. I admit, it’s not noir. I’m also stretching the definition of “mystery novel.” Robber Bride doesn’t feature a detective or a parade of murderees. The reader knows the villain (Zenia) from the start. But you don’t know what she did, or how she did it. That’s the mystery – the howdunit, you might say.

Atwood delivers enough plot twists and obfuscation to please the most demanding of mystery fans. She deploys wry humour and strong prose. She makes you think. However, Robber Bride has its limitations. It isn’t for the hard-boiled. Too much literary description, too much talk of “feelings.” Oh, those dreaded feelings. Me, I like a good dose of feelings now and then. I don’t want noir all the time.

Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. McClelland and Stewart. 1993.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Robber_Bride

Elmore Leonard – More Hemingway than Hemingway

Elmore Leonard lived most of his life in Detroit, a working-class city, a ‘waste-not, want-not’ city. It’s no surprise he didn’t waste words in his fiction. Papa (Ernest) Hemingway is regarded by many as the Father of Succinct Prose: few adjectives, fewer adverbs. Some say that if Hemingway is the father, Leonard is the first son. Or perhaps Leonard’s a younger brother. In my view, he’s more Hemingway than Hemingway.

Leonard isn’t a traditional mystery writer. He doesn’t focus on sleuths trying to solve crimes. Instead, he delivers what I call Crime+Suspense. He keeps you guessing. You know the ‘hoods’ in his novels are going to pull a heist or execute a hit, but you don’t know how or when they’re going to do it.

Leonard generally writes from the point-of-view (POV) of criminals. In Get Shorty, for example, he creates an ambiance that sympathizes with – if not glamorizes – the criminal world.

As an aside, the majority of mystery novels feature detective leads, not criminal leads. When mystery authors use a murderer’s POV, to keep the whodunit in play they hide the murderer’s deepest thoughts – thoughts of murder. I’m not a big fan of using a murderer’s POV in a mystery novel. Not that it can’t work. An author can be inside a murderer’s mind, but not reveal everything that’s going on in there. Or, if the author reveals who the murderer is, they can keep the reader on the hook by slowly unveiling the how and why. In a sense, they deliver a howdunit.

Back to Elmore Leonard. He often presages what will happen near the start of a book, and then tells you how it happened. That’s OK with me. I love the way he tells a story: clean and fast, with lots of snappy dialog. That’s the signature of an Elmore Leonard novel. It’s noir, just not mystery noir.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmore_Leonard

A few excerpts from the Leonard opus ….

A male character called Foley to Dawn:

“Tell me, what is it about a girl’s navel? It catches the eye and won’t let go.”
“I suppose,” Dawn said, “because it’s right in the middle of the playground.”

Two “crime” characters:

“I’m saying we’re all friends,” Frank said. “Kindred spirits. Birds of a feather.”
“Man,” Sportree said, “you need some new words.”

Are Movies Better than Books? (The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy)

Are movies based on books ever better than the books themselves? Some people claim that books are always better than movies. Let’s look at a case from Swedish noir: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (aka, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy).

The books were a huge sensation. No debate there. However, the movies are far  better (the three versions shot in Sweden). They have depth and complexity. As critics like to say, they live and breathe. You see the inhumanity. You feel Lizbeth Salander’s anger and disgust. And when you read the books? You don’t. The English translations suffer from stilted prose. The plots seem plodding and mundane. Relatively speaking, the books are dead wood.

Perhaps I can blame the book translations from Swedish to English? Perhaps. Unfortunately, I can’t read Swedish, so I can’t say. However, I can say that I’d watch the movies again. I will never read the English translations again. Movies: Three. Books: Zero. A lopsided win. And a shutout, as we Canucks say.

(PS: In my opinion, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is an exception. Books usually win. Hey, I’m in the writers’ union.)

Cisco – Flannery O’Connor meets Elmore Leonard in San Fran

Cisco by Jim White. Dark Passages Publishing. 2019.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Cisco unfolds on the streets of San Fran. The protagonist, Cisco, is a cunning man, a kidnapper with a Biblical sense of wrath. His antagonist, Detective Helen McCurda, is a seasoned cop with no quit. The novella’s plotline is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story. The reader gets religiosity and hard-scrabble life in equal measure. In addition to the O’Connor fictional MO, we are in Elmore Leonard land. White delivers Cisco with sharp, clear prose. There are no wasted words. We are immediately pulled into the story.

Cisco knows his Bible, but he doesn’t turn his cheek. He’s a lawless evangelical. He has no apparent remorse. A speech impediment humanizes him. However, it turns out to be fake. Some think he’s a mad man. Is he ‘criminally insane’? I’d say not. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a killer/kidnapper of Biblical, as in monstrous, proportions, both physically and mentally. His strength appears to come from God, and yet he is a Fallen Man (echoes of Prospero and Caliban in ‘The Tempest’).

On the other side of the thin blue line, Detective McCurda is intelligent, tough, competent, and sympatico. She’s everything you want a cop to be. However, Cisco is the engine of the story. His actions and complex personality move the plot forward. As in Leonard’s novels, the criminals in Cisco are far more interesting than the cops. I like that. The cops can’t always be the stars. But I do have a minor complaint – which is really a compliment.I want more of Cisco. The story ended too soon.