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.

Author Talk & Signing, Wasaga Beach Library, Wasaga Beach, ON. Monday August 12, 6:00 PM

Author Talk & Signing at Wasaga Beach Public Library, WASAGA BEACH, ON. 120 Glenwood Drive. Directions | Website

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.

North Noir Defined

What is North Noir?” In short, it’s a distinctly Canadian crime series, aka Canuck Noir.

The North element refers to how the world sees Canada – as the North; e.g., the Great White North or the True North (strong and free). The novels are set in the northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario. The victims are contemporary Canadian icons. While they may be famous, they’re also down-to-earth. Good Canadian sorts. But not too good to die. The police procedural work is typically Canadian. There are no extended car chases, helicopter missions, or gun battles. No over-the-top Hollywood clichés. Those things rarely happen here.

The Noir element refers to a tradition of crime writing linked to film noir, to movies such as The Maltese Falcon, which was first a novel. Noir fiction doesn’t dwell on characters’ feelings. Similarly, in the North Noir series, the protagonist, Detective Eva Naslund, is not sentimental, although she is intuitive and kind.

The crime/mystery genre turns on whodunit puzzles. Readers expect to be both challenged and entertained. With the Naslund novels, I deliver more than puzzles and blood and guts. I always embed – very deeply (no preaching) – an existential conundrum in my novels. The majority of murders hinge on money. In a word, greed. In my current work-in-progress (the second North Noir novel), the main murderee is killed because of his renunciation of money, his anti-greed. Readers get a baffling puzzle, and, if they’re looking, they’ll find a deeply buried ethical message. For me, all novels – even whodunits – should have an existential core.