The Best English-Canadian Novel of All Time

What’s the best English-Canadian novel of all time? Admittedly, when speaking of Canadian novels, all time isn’t a very long time, less than 250 years. {BTW, I’m not including French-Canadian novels. I don’t know them well enough.}

The History of Emily Montague (1769) is usually considered the first Canadian novel. Although there were dozens of novels published in the 19th century, CanLit didn’t really get off the ground until the 20th century. But I digress. This isn’t a history lesson.

The best English-Canadian novel is … drumroll please … The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, published in 1996.

I can hear dissent. I don’t mind. When it comes to books, I’m opinionated. As for the dissent, I’ll address some of it. “What about Nobel-prize winner Alice Munro?” Well, Munro wrote one book published as a novel, which is actually a collection of inter-linked short stories, albeit an excellent collection. “What about an Atwood or Lawrence novel?” Worthy of consideration, but I vote for The Englishman’s Boy. “What about novels by Hugh McClelland, Michael Ondaatje, Rudy Wiebe, Lisa Moore, or Miriam Toews?” Again, all worthy, but give me The Englishman’s Boy.

Here’s why. In a nutshell, The Englishman’s Boy delivers the best combination of prose and plot. A literary double play. The writing is masterful. Vanderhaeghe’s painterly descriptions and perfect sentences are somehow direct and poetic at the same time. The storyline is just as masterful. You get a captivating page-turner that spans generations. I won’t elaborate on the plot. Suffice to say that it pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

I’m not the only person who thinks Vanderhaeghe is a master. He’s won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction (one was for The Englishman’s Boy). His prose has been lauded by many. For example, Rick Salutin extolled its virtues in the ‘Globe and Mail,’ claiming that Vanderhaeghe’s sentences were works of art (I’m paraphrasing Salutin). The Englishman’s Boy was turned into a mini-series (which was almost as good as the novel). That is a tribute to the plot, and is a rare thing in itself – see: Are Movies Better Than Books?

When I want to read a Canadian classic that delivers both excellent prose and plotting, I open the The Englishman’s Boy.

Yorkshire Noir – The Inspector Banks Series

English-born Peter Robinson crossed the pond for a new life in Canada. However, his Inspector Alan Banks novels are set in the UK. The police procedural and forensic details turn on detective work in the Yorkshire Dales. And those details are spot on.

As the series opens, Banks has recently left London Metropolitan Police and the big city, seeking a quieter life in Yorkshire. He doesn’t find it. The Dales may be a long way from London (by English standards, not Canadian), but they are teeming with fictional murder and mayhem. Banks is a busy sleuth, a divorcee who loves women, but has no luck finding true love.

Robinson deploys multiple narrative points-of-view, featuring criminals plus various detectives, mainly Alan Banks, Annie Cabbot (a former Banks love interest) and Winsome Jackman. The novels are expertly plotted and delivered with a descriptive eye. The early books in the series are cozier in tone, while the later books are harder, an Eight out of Ten on the Noir Scale, with Ian Rankin being a Nine-point-Five.

Although Robinson is known for his police procedural details, if you dig deeper, the main element in his writing is human psychology (cop and criminal). As an aside, I’d say that psychology is the main element in most crime writing, if not all. The difference between the crime subgenres is mainly due to the way that characters are portrayed – both cops and criminals – as well as the bloodiness of the killings. A cozy is soft and humane, and, at the other end of the subgenre spectrum, a black crime novel is at times almost inhuman.

Robinson doesn’t shy away from literary prose. His plots are firmly set in place and time. The descriptive veracity makes his fiction appear to be fact, which is what all crime novels need.

When I want a winning combination of police procedural details, detective personality, and descriptive prose, I turn to Peter Robinson. As alluded to above, he’s not as noir as Ian Rankin. Nor is he as cozy as Agatha Christie or P.D. James. He hits a sweet spot in between.

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Banks novels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Robinson_(novelist)

A few excerpts from the Banks opus ….

On the optimum time window to solve a murder:

Traditional police wisdom is that if a case doesn’t yield leads in the first 24 hours, everyone is in for a long haul. That time period could run to 30, 36 or 48 hours. That’s the problem. When do you scale down your efforts? The answer: You don’t.

A short “history lesson,” delivered by an ex-copper Banks knows [I’ve shortened the quote]:

“The first detectives came from the criminal classes. They were equally at home on either side of the law. Jonathan Wild, the famous thief-taker, for example. Half the time he set up the blokes he fingered. And back then, the days you’re asking about, I think we were a bit closer to our prototypes than the office boys we seem to have on the force today, if you’ll pardon my criticism. Now, I’m not saying that I was ever a crimo myself, but I lived close enough to the line at times to know what a thin line it is, and I was also close enough to know how they thought. I could think like them. I could’ve easily used my street smarts for criminal purposes ….” He let the sentence trail.

Style AND Substance: Steven Heighton’s The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton. Hamish Hamilton. 2017.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

It’s worth revisiting the cliché all style and no substance. It refers to an overstated buildup that proves to be unwarranted. Steven Heighton’s fourth novel is anything but. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep builds organically, to a multi-faceted and authentic climax.

Heighton is a Governor General Award-winning poet, a word master par excellence, yet his prose style doesn’t eclipse the storyline. On the contrary, it serves it.

The setting is exotic – an abandoned no-man’s land in contemporary Cyprus – without being distant in space and time. The storyline is compelling. Elias, a Greek-Canadian soldier suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan, appears to have found a home in a ruined demilitarized zone, a locale frozen in time since 1974. The DMZ is not empty. It hosts a band of outliers as fascinating as any found in CanLit, including The English Patient or A Discovery of Strangers.

The DMZ is a fecund setting, pregnant with promise yet also loss – in a sense, a Garden of Eden. Dislocation and the threat of eviction coexist with human warmth and beautifully simple food. Despite the temptations, the garden does not hold Elias. Or, rather, circumstances do not allow him to be held. He must depart. His gift – and the reader’s boon – is what transpires between his arrival and departure. At novel’s end, he is a changed man, occasionally conflicted, but able to move forward.

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

A few descriptive excerpts from The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep

He wakes in the dark. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. Then he spies through a gap in the curtains a row of three clear stars, Orion’s belt.

The moon, a few days beyond full, is blistering up out of the sea.

North Bay Noir – Giles Blunt

Giles Blunt was born in Canada to English parents. As he tells it, “they had colorful accents and amusing habits and never allowed themselves to be influenced by Canadians. Consequently I lived in England at home and Canada at school.” Regardless of the schism – or maybe because of it – Blunt learned how to write. Very well. He is one of the few crime writers to be nominated for the Dublin IMPAC award.

Blunt’s Detective John Cardinal novels have been turned into a TV series. I’m not a fan of the series, but I don’t blame Blunt. The TV offerings don’t deliver the vibrancy and depth of the Cardinal novels, a prime example of the general rule that books are better than the movies/series based on them. Of course, every rule has its exceptions (Are Movies Better Than Books?).

Back to Blunt. The Cardinal novels are set in Algonquin Bay, a thinly disguised version of North Bay, Ontario. OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Detective John Cardinal is a down-to-earth yet complex man. Blunt doesn’t hide Cardinal’s faults. The detective is not a particularly social animal (like many a detective; to wit, Connelly’s Bosch and Rankin’s Rebus). Although Cardinal bears psychic scars, he is humane, humble, and likable.    

The Cardinal plotlines demonstrate that crime novels can be personal, with “literary” character development. They don’t need to be all crime all of the time. If you have interesting detectives like Cardinal and his partner, Lise Delorme, you can deliver whodunits with depth. Of course, it helps if the criminals aren’t one-dimensional. Blunt doesn’t fall into that trap. He gives us nuanced perps. As Cardinal hunts them down, the reader walks both sides of the thin blue line.

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

A few excerpts from the Cardinal opus ….

Blunt delivers “literary” prose:

“The Planet Grief. An incalculable number of light years from the warmth of the sun. When the rain falls, it falls in droplets of grief, and when the light shines, it is in waves and particles of grief. From whatever direction the wind blows — south, east, north or west — it blows cinders of grief before it.”

Advice if you get lost in the Canadian woods:

“Panic will kill you faster than any wolf, faster than any bear.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Blunt novels.