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 …. The Robber Bride.

Get &^$%,” you say, “The 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.” The 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, The 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.

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

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

Playing the E-Promotion Game

There’s a fine line between promotion and flaming, between enticing people to look at something and harassing them. The e-promotion world is huge. Here’s a look at one small country: the author/publishing nation. Caveat: This post may only appeal to authors. However, if you’re interested in e-promotion – be it for books, services, or anything else – read on.

The Game. “You’re an author now,” my publisher said. “Enlarge your social media footprint.”

Size twelve wasn’t good enough. Size twenty-four was the ticket. So, I wrote blog posts. I sent broadcast emails. I facebooked, linkedin, tweeted, and instagrammed. I was a hamster on the promo wheel. But who was caught on a bigger wheel? The people who knew me. For example, those who’d been online friends for years, back when I barely posted anything. Suddenly I was posting a river. “What the #*&?! This guy is foaming at the pen.” Sorry about that. And thank you for navigating the river.

Let’s leave aside tweets and I-grams and focus on blogging. When you publish blog posts, you are given the option of connecting to readers via the main social media dragons of the day (such as fb and LinkedIn). The dragons ask to use your email contacts to generate more traffic.

Sounds good, so you let them. They then ingest all the email addresses you’ve ever sent email to or received email from. The dragons blast every contact, even people who don’t remember you or emailed you ten years ago. Your contacts get burned. But your publisher gets happy. So somebody wins. Hey, maybe some of your contacts win too. They like what your site delivers. Good news. If enough of them are happy, there’s a win-win.

I’m no social media guru. However, I have a few simple tips about blogging. ONE: When the dragons ask to use your email contacts, uncheck ‘All’ and manually select the contacts you want. TWO: Pick the right time to publish your posts. I chose the weekend (I don’t want to blast people during the work week). THREE: Keep your posts short; most of mine are under 300 words (be good to your readers – they’re time-pressed).

PS: In my case – that of a fiction writer – blogging has been the most effective e-promotion tool. Instagram and Facebook send the most readers to my blog.

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.

Bay of Blood

Bay of Blood, the first novel in the North Noir Canada Series, featuring Detective Eva Naslund. Release date: March 23, 2019. Published by Black Opal Books. Click here for sales.

Bay of Blood. World-renowned painter Thom Tyler is murdered in Georgian Bay, Canada. The consensus is that Tyler had no enemies. Why would anyone murder him?

Detective Eva Naslund goes to work with a homicide team from OPP Central. They find no useful blood, print, or DNA evidence. They turn to financial forensics and criminal psychology. Tyler’s paintings are worth millions, yet he’s deeply in debt to banks and his art agent. Just as the investigation opens a new lead, courtesy of Tyler’s friend, J.J. MacKenzie, MacKenzie is murdered. The team is back to ground zero — with two murders to solve ….

North Noir - Colpoys Bay

View of Colpoys Bay, setting of Bay of Blood

Chapter 1

Colpoys Bay, Georgian Bay, Ontario, July 8th:

Predawn stars salted the sky. Thom Tyler pushed his skiff off the dock, paddled hard to point her nose into the wind, and immediately raised the sail. Off he tore, skimming across the water toward White Cloud Island.

To the east, the sky shed its blackness. A pale red flush crept across the bay. He settled in the cockpit. A few moments later, his neck-hairs bristled. He sensed hostile eyes burning into his head. Shifting nonchalantly, he leaned portside to inspect the shore. All quiet. Just the inky outline of Mallory Beach. Still, he was sure someone was there.

A car engine started. Very strange, he thought. There were never any cars about at this hour. He saw no lights. The slowly revving engine headed north. Was someone tracking him?

Forget it, he told himself and faced forward.

He turned his mind to sailing, easing out the mainsheet to spill some speed. Still, he flew over the water. He could smell the north: the clean sharpness of boreal forests. However, in the back of his mind, he felt uneasy. He sensed something out there waiting for him. His neck twitched. The strange car fueled his anxiety. Something was waiting for him.

Chapter 2

Wiarton, Bruce Peninsula. Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Station, July 8th:

“Got a little run for you, Naslund.”

Detective Eva Naslund looked up to see the detachment chief standing at her desk. Ted Bickell’s pants were perfectly pressed. The creases looked like they could slice someone’s throat. “A boat just washed up near Cape Commodore,” Bickell said. “Caller reported blood. Lots of it.” He paused. “But I’m sure you can handle it.”

Naslund nodded. Fair point. She’d had nothing but B&Es for the past two months.

Bickell handed her a slip of paper. Donnie Rathbone. HW 1, 100220.

“Not an emergency,” he said. “No speeding.”

She shrugged. On a day like today, she’d drive anywhere in the Bruce, fast or slow, the farther from Staff Sergeant Bickell, the better. As she drove east, the morning sun tinted Colpoy’s Bay a deep golden red. The limestone cliffs above Mallory Beach not only reflected the sun, they shimmered like suns themselves. A convoy of high white clouds raced across the sky.

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled off Highway One at a weathered blue bungalow with an unobstructed view of Georgian Bay. A run-down barn flanked the house. Across the highway, parched-looking Christmas trees stretched inland as far as she could see. It’d been a hot, dry summer. As she stepped out of her unmarked car, the wind whipped her pants around her legs. Georgian Bay was running high, churned by a powerful northwesterly. The Georgian was usually restless. It was essentially an inland sea. On calm days there was often a sea roll, even if only long and slow. Today there was a wave train. Line after line of breakers roared ashore.

She knocked on the front door. The man who answered was tall and fit, bearded, about fifty years old.

“Donnie Rathbone?” she asked.

The man nodded.

“Detective Sergeant Naslund, OPP.”

“Detective Sergeant, eh? Sent out a top dog, did they?”

She chuckled and covertly pressed the recording button on her duty phone. “No, sir. They had no choice. I’m the only detective in Wiarton.”

“Come on in then. Place is a bit of a mess. Wife’s away.”

“When the cat’s away,” Naslund said.

Rathbone grinned and led her to the kitchen. Passing the stove, she noticed a pan of congealed bacon. It was almost full. He pointed out the window. “There it is.”

She followed his finger and saw a boat seemingly hauled up on the shore. “When did you spot her?”

“About seven. I got up a bit late, at six, went right to the barn, fed my pigs, and came back for breakfast. I noticed it then. So I walked down.” Rathbone paused. “That’s when I saw the blood. A helluva lot of blood. I came right back and called nine-one-one.”

“Did you touch the boat?”

“No.”

“Did you touch anything aboard it?”

“No. I watch them CSI programs, you know.”

“All right. So, you noticed the boat about seven?”

“Right. Like I said, I was running late. Got up and went straight to my pigs.”

Rathbone sounded a bit nervous. In any case, the boat could have been there well before 0700 hours. “Did you happen to look out to your shore last night?”

“Nothing there last night, not when I went to bed. At ten-thirty that was.”

“Did you see or hear anyone on your property this morning?”

“No.”

“Notice anyone in the bay? Boats? Swimmers?”

“Didn’t see any.”

“Did you see anything strange on the highway?”

“No.”

“No one walking or running? No unusual vehicles?”

“No.”

“Thank you.”

***

Given the apparently large amount of blood, Naslund drew a hooded clean-suit from her trunk and stepped into it. Instantly she felt constricted, yet twice as big. She pulled on shoe covers and gloves and walked carefully down the path to the shore, examining the ground. One set of boot prints going, one coming back. Rathbone, if the man was telling the truth. She’d impound his boots on the way out.

As she reached the fine-graveled shore, she eyed the boat. A skiff, about six meters long. The bow faced southeast. The stern was still in the water, but the boat wasn’t moving. She’d settled into the gravel, as if she’d been there for days. Naslund figured the wind had driven her hard into shore. The mast and boom were intact, the sail torn to shreds. The hull was wooden, dove-gray with white trim.

That dove-gray hull. It looked like her friend Thom Tyler’s skiff. She stepped to the side and read the boat’s name: West Wind. Christ, it was Thom’s skiff. Had he been forced to abandon ship?

Digging inside her clean-suit, she fished out her duty phone and called Thom’s cottage. His other half answered. “Morning, Carrie. Eva here. Is Thom there?”

“No. He’s out fishing.”

“When did he leave?”

“About five.”

Naslund glanced at the time — 0738. “Did he go out alone?”

“As far as I know. I was in bed when he left. Anything wrong?”

Naslund ducked the question. “Are you sure he went out this morning?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Call me when he gets home.” Naslund gave Carrie her OPP cell number, telling herself Thom would show. He’d abandoned ship and swam to shore, or a passing boat took him aboard.

Knowing that Thom always wore a blue lifevest, Naslund pulled a pair of binoculars from her CS kitbag. Focusing the binoculars, she turned her head slowly, scanning the bay in sweeps.

No sign of a blue lifevest, no floating bodies.

Follow the wind, she told herself. The northwesterly will drive anyone southeast. She stepped to the edge of the bay and scanned again and again.

Nothing.

Let it ride, she thought. Thom would show. He was the strongest swimmer she knew.

She walked up to the skiff and immediately saw a lot of blood, most of it inside the hull. She knew there’d been even more. The wave train would have washed some away. She paced the starboard side. At midship, two large splatter patterns spread from the gunwale down to the bilge, both about half-a-meter in width and a meter in length. She leaned closer. The main pattern presented wide-angle spray consistent with blows from a blunt force weapon. A lead pipe, she thought, maybe a crowbar. The other pattern resembled the spurting caused by a stab wound. Near them were two lines of fat circular drops, indicating blood falling at a fast rate, exiting large wounds. From the vector of the lines, she knew the source fell forward, toward the gunwale. Or was pushed.

She started down the port side. Halfway along it, she found the centerboard keel sticking out from the hull, almost completely detached, like a broken limb. No surprise. The skiff had grounded. She kept walking, finding no blood on the port side and none on the mast, sail, or mainsheet. However, there was blood on the starboard side of the boom. Had it hit Thom and knocked him overboard? Maybe. She re-evaluated the scene. No sharp protrusions on the boom. Two splatter patterns. If the boom had hit Thom, there would likely only be one — consistent with blunt force blood, not spurting blood. She filed the thought away.

Returning to the stains, she bent down on one knee. Her clean-suit felt even more constricting. She sniffed. The stains didn’t smell fishy or gamey. She looked for scales or animal hair. Nothing. She stood and surveyed the blood again. It couldn’t be from a small animal, like a dog or cat — there was too much of it. Could be from a deer, she reasoned, or a cow. Or a pig. Rathbone? Could be. But there were no other signs of animals present. The blood was likely human.

Seeing no signs of activity near the skiff — no prints or scuffs, no evidence of a struggle — she assumed the shore wasn’t a crime scene. But the blood splatter suggested the skiff was. She had a blood kit in her car, but decided to call the white coats. Pulling out her duty phone, she called Central.

“Serology. Gerard LaFlamme.”

Hot Doc, she thought, not that LaFlamme appreciated the nickname. He’d filed a complaint against two female detectives. They’d admitted wrongdoing then relabeled him THD, Très Hot Doc. “Morning, LaFlamme. Detective Naslund, Bruce Peninsula.”

“Naslund, what gives?”

“Got some blood on a wooden boat. Suspicion of assault. I’d run it myself but I need a foolproof ID.”

“Okay. Where are you?”

She gave him the location and hung up. Starting at the bow, she paced twenty steps inland, away from the skiff. Head down, eyes focused on the ground, she searched a grid about 200 meters square. No boot or foot indentations in the loose gravel, no prints on harder ground, no wheel or tire tracks leading away from the skiff. No butts, bottles, or cans. No wrappers. Nothing.

She walked back to the skiff and deliberately paced the starboard side from the waterline to the bow, this time with a magnifying glass. No hairs or fibers. Four partial fingerprints, wet and faint. Difficult to lift. Best left to a white coat. She paced down the port side to the waterline, but found nothing. Yet she sensed something was wrong.

She stood still and surveyed the whole boat, her eyes finally returning to the bow. That was it. No anchor rode-line tied to the bow. And no anchor. Why would Thom go out without an anchor? He’d just added a new rode-line. She’d watched him do it at the marina three mornings ago…

***

“Good afternoon,” Naslund had said, as she always did first thing in the morning. She gauged a person’s mood by how they responded.

“Good evening,” Thom replied.

Naslund grinned. As usual, Thom liked to be kidded. He wore old shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt. His tanned arms had the appearance of weathered leather. With his outdoorsman’s face and long black hair, he looked like a Great Lakes voyageur. He moored his bigger sailboat at the marina, but was working on the skiff from his cottage boathouse.

She surveyed the skiff, a Mackinaw whose boom was raised so that a six-footer could easily slide under it.

“Want a muffin?” he asked and pointed to a paper bag. “Go on, have one. You need to eat more.”

She did, but didn’t want to show it. Since she’d split up with her husband Pete, she wasn’t eating much. Although life had returned to normal, her appetite hadn’t.

“You’re always on the go,” Thom said.

“Me?” she deadpanned.

“Yep, you.” He chuckled. “Curiosity killed the cop.”

“But luck brought her back.” She reached for a muffin. As she ate it, Thom tied a new anchor rode to the bow with a solid knot, a tight bowline.

***

Now, eying the scene, Naslund took two steps back and dropped to her haunches. The clean-suit protested, slowing her movement. From hip-level, she studied the skiff. Something about it told her that Thom was dead. In her sixteen years on the force, she’d seen plenty of dead bodies. They’d all seemed vacant, abandoned by life. The skiff looked like them. Abandoned forever.

Naslund grimaced. Hoping for the best, she called in a Search & Rescue and then notified Bickell by radiophone. Although she normally used her duty cell, old-boy Bickell preferred radio-comm. He’d order his daily fish & chips by radio if he could. Afterward, she stood and faced the bay, trying to muster her optimism. Maybe they’d find Thom alive. Maybe he’d show up.

Turning her back to the wind, she called Carrie, who answered immediately.

“Eva here. I found Thom’s boat, but not him. I called the Coast Guard for a search.”

“What? A search? Why?”

“No need to worry. Thom probably swam into shore. He’ll show up soon.” Naslund stopped. She didn’t feel like lying. Besides, Carrie had one of the sharpest minds she knew.

“Then why search for him?”

She had no good answer. She held back the information about the blood. “His skiff came ashore near Cape Commodore. Now we need to find him.”

“Find him then. Find him!”

“We will.”

“I want to help. Where are you?”

“You can’t come here.” Naslund knew the Coast Guard would call in the OPP Marine Unit from Wiarton. “Phone the station,” she told her. “They’ll be organizing search teams.”

“Okay.” Carrie hung up.

Naslund sighed. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t join the search. She had an investigation to run. Worse still, she felt sure Thom was dead. Her friend wouldn’t simply walk out of the bay, laughing off the northwesterly.

She inhaled deeply, held her breath for three seconds, exhaled slowly, and repeated the cycle five times — a trick she’d learned from Pete, a sports-therapist. It stilled her mind.

She eyed the skiff again. If the blood was human, they’d need a full forensic team. In the meantime, she needed one constable to secure the site and another to canvass the neighborhood to the east. After they arrived she’d revisit Rathbone then take the west. She glanced up at Rathbone’s kitchen window. The man was watching her. She called the station. The dispatcher answered.

Naslund identified herself and gave the address. “Got a CS. Send two PCs.”

I went to the Dark Side. I’m glad I did.

I once wanted to write literary fiction. I loved reading literary fiction, so why not? The more obscure the prose and plotline (read: lack thereof), the more I loved it: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon.

I wanted to write a Finnegans Wake redux. I even read Finnegans Wake. It took me a whole summer. I was an undergraduate with a night job so I had the time. I read all the books you needed to approach Finnegans Wake: the skeleton key, the concordances, the academic treatises. And then I read the opus itself. To the last page: 656. Approximately 200,000 words.

People were impressed; well, some people. Had they read it? No. In fact, no one I knew had read Finnegans Wake. Anyway, I tried to write like Joyce. Bad idea. I eventually realized writing FW-like fiction was a lost cause. Who’s read all of FW (apart from academics)? I deserted literary fiction. You could say I became a traitor. I went to the dark side – the Noir side. Hallelujah!

I started reading genre fiction, specifically crime fiction. Why? I wanted to read a damn good story, not damn good (supposedly) prose. I wanted storylines and whodunnit puzzles, not prose pyrotechnics. Then I started writing genre fiction.

I’m very happy to be in genre land. Does that mean I don’t read literary fiction? No. Does that mean I’ll never write literary fiction again? No. I might go there. Never say never. If I’d remained blinkered by literary prose, I wouldn’t have found genre fiction. Change prose styles when you want to, and change back again. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. Write whatever the hell you want – in any style you want.