Ron Corbett: Maestro of Hinterland Noir

A century ago, in the time of Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), there were relatively few detective novelists. Not so today. There are hundreds of excellent (and prolific) detective/mystery novelists. Take Canadian Ron Corbett, an Ottawa-based author whose novels have been nominated for both the Edgar and Arthur Ellis awards.

Corbett is the epitome of prolific; he’s published four novels in the last five years. The first, Ragged Lake (2017), set in an abandoned village on the Northern Divide, is the opening salvo in the Detective Yakabuski series. The Divide, a fictionalized Canadian hinterland, is beautiful but unforgiving. Frank Yakabuski is as no-nonsense as Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. He’s also as well-drawn. Ragged Lake is a paragon of descriptive prose, as are the next two novels in the series, Cape Diamond (2018) and Mission Road (2020).

Continuing the Ian Rankin comparison, like the master of Scottish Noir, Corbett doesn’t dish out genteel whodunits. [Fans of cozy mysteries, be aware.] Corbett’s fictional violence isn’t gratuitous; it’s part of life on the Northern Divide. Yakabuski is the perfect cop for the region: hard-nosed yet imbued with a deep, one could say, mystical sense of the Divide.

After the Yakabuski trilogy, Corbett moved to the wild timberlands of Maine with The Sweet Goodbye (2022). The protagonist, Danny Barrett, is an undercover FBI agent. Like the Yakabuski novels, The Sweet Goodbye is a complex tale of deceit and retribution. Unlike them, the Maine novel has a major female character, which softens the plotline — in my view, to good effect.

At the risk of stepping into quicksand, let’s look at male vs female characters in the detective/mystery genre. {If you don’t want to step with me, please go to the last paragraph.} Consider Ian Rankin’s fictional world. He portrays women deftly, but the cops, murderers, and victims are mostly male. In my reading experience, the more hard-boiled a novel, the smaller the role women play in it. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, such as the Dragon-Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander.

I realize there’s an element of sexism in what I’m saying. ‘What, AMP, women can’t be tough or bad-ass?’ Sure they can. Take Salander again. I tend to look at the male-female continuum in terms of realism, not sexism. If females dominate an author’s fictional world, the reader shouldn’t expect males to play main roles. And vice versa. When males dominate a fictional world, you don’t often find numerous influential females. In my view, that’s fictional realism, not gender myopia. It’s up to the author to decide where they want to fall on the continuum. Readers will follow if they wish.

Bottom line: As a reader, when I’m not interested in a story, when the male-female continuum doesn’t ring true, I drop the book. Which I didn’t do with Corbett’s novels. I read all of them to their vivid ends.

For more information on Ron Corbett, see his website.

Brief Answers from Detective Stephen Hawking

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Hawking recently – in some ways, the complete opposite of reading detective fiction. Then again, Hawking was a detective of sorts – searching for answers to mind-boggling questions from physics and cosmology.

My favourite Hawking book is his last one, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (from 2018, the year he died). It’s a pocket-size compendium that summarizes his work by addressing ten big questions – e.g., “How did it all begin?” – mysteries beyond the purview of even Sherlock Holmes.

Hawking didn’t believe in creation myths; on the other hand, he admitted science doesn’t know exactly how the universe started. He writes clearly, which doesn’t mean reading him is always easy. When he gets deep into black holes or singularities, your brain can go into its own black hole. Fortunately, he soon brings you back to earth – to good-old 4-dimensional spacetime.

Hawking was one of the greatest scientific minds of the last 100 years. He stood on the shoulders of Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle. Like Aristotle, he was also a philosopher. To me, that is Hawking’s true genius. Through science, he tried to understand humanity.

A Hawking quote:

“I have led an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time travelling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics …. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor. I have been able-bodied and disabled …. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.”

John le Carré, King of the Spy Thriller

In memory of John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell), who died in December 2020, I’ve been revisiting his novels. Many spy thriller heroes are almost superhuman. Le Carré’s heroes are flawed humans who rely on endurance and ingenuity.

My favourite le Carré novels are The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001), and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). PS: All three were made into movies.

The Tailor of Panama. The protagonist, Harry Pendel, a transplanted Londoner, is a wonderfully humane creation. Once a convict in England, he is now a tailor in Panama City – and bumbling spy. As Panama crumbles around him, he learns the values of family and integrity.

The Constant Gardener. The novel opens in Kenya: “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.” From there, the story spans the globe. Le Carré exposes not only the divided heart of England, but of the West as a whole.

Our Kind of Traitor. The plot turns on the open-heartedness of a young British academic, Perry Makepiece. However, the true star of the novel is Dima Krasnov, a Russian money launderer who wants to defect to England. Dima is brilliantly rendered. Part-bully, part-romantic, part-egalitarian, he drives the story to its inevitable end.