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.)

Voice Appropriation – Then and Now

Introductory Note: I wrote the following book review in 1995. Why am I republishing it (with a few edits)? What does it have to do with writing fiction? Two words: Voice Appropriation. If you’re not into book reviews, feel free to skip to the bottom of the post.

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe. Knopf Canada. 1994. {Review first published by A.M. Potter. ® 1995}

Rudy Wiebe won the 1973 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (Canada) for The Temptations of Big Bear. Long before the advent of movies like Dances with Wolves, Wiebe’s indigenous characters took centre stage. He appropriated a multitude of historical voices, regardless of ethnicity or station in life, and allowed each to tell their own version of events.

Wiebe’s second G-G award-winning novel, A Discovery of Strangers, follows the same general format. The reader views the 1820-21 Franklin Expedition through the eyes of not only the English explorers, but also the Canadian voyagers and Yellowknife natives who made it possible. Much of the story is told from the point-of-view of a young indigenous woman called Greenstockings. Wiebe could be accused of double voice appropriation. He’s a white male who wrote as a female, not to mention an indigenous female.

A Discovery of Strangers is as much a love story as a retelling of history. The beautiful Greenstockings is a man-magnet. One of Franklin’s junior officers, Robert Hood, is besotted by her. Wiebe’s account of their deepening attraction – which finally erupts inside her father’s lodge – is as tender and tragic as a troubadour tale.

A reader cannot help noting the stylistic affinities of Wiebe’s two award-winning novels. Both use similar narrative devices – flashbacks, visionary dreams, multiple points-of-view – as well as similar prose styles. It’s almost as if the author said to himself, Hmm, that worked before. I’ll do it again.

Wiebe’s descriptive passages perfectly capture the sub-Arctic terrain, largely harsh and unforgiving in the eyes of the whites, no less harsh in the eyes of the Yellowknife, yet also pregnant with life and joy. We read of eerie ice caves, the fickle migrations of the caribou, and the endless threat of starvation. We enter the past. It may be long-lost but, in Wiebe’s hands, it is also eternally-present.

Postscript, 2019

When A Discovery of Strangers was published (1994), some people weren’t happy with Wiebe’s double voice appropriation, that is, writing from the point-of-view (POV) of both an indigenous person and a female. It’s no easy task for a male to write convincingly as a female, let alone for a white male to write as an indigenous female. However, Wiebe succeeded. Stylistically.

As to being politically correct, in 2019 many more people challenge Wiebe’s voice appropriation than twenty-five years ago. For the most part today, voice appropriation is frowned upon. A white male like me shouldn’t write from the POV of an indigenous person. I also shouldn’t write from the POV of a female. But I do. The protagonist and sole narrator of my North Noir detective series is a female, Eva Naslund, a Swedish-Scottish Canadian.

Why do I use a female narrator? The answer is not simple. I understand that, for some people, it’s not politically correct. I understand that I can’t think or feel exactly like a female. {Incidentally, it seems to be OK for females to use male POVs. For example, in the mystery genre, Louise Penny’s protagonist is Armand Gamache, and then there’s Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.} Despite the recent voice appropriation furor, I persist. While I’m a supposedly honorable person (according to friends, and I don’t even pay them), I’m not always politically correct. I don’t think anyone is. I also persist because I write fiction. Works of imagination. Say no more.

My final spiel: I don’t care what narrative voice(s) you use. Write as a Purple Martian who’s in love with non-gender-specific star dust. If your POV is convincing, I’ll read it.

Post-Postscript:

See Rudy Wiebe on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Wiebe.