The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

March 19, 2011

REVIEW: FALL FROM GRACE by Wayne Arthurson

Leo Desroches is a hardened journalist, but he's been hardened by more than just the job. Leo is a gambling addict. He's lost his wife and children, his home, and his career to his addiction. But Lady Luck sometimes pays off, though never as much as one bets overall, and Leo at last has a job on a newspaper again. He's through living on the streets and is determined to stay clear of the casinos. But he's still addicted to playing the odds against enormous risks. Given the opportunity to write an investigative piece on the murder of a young native woman, Leo begins to find evidence of a serial killer at work for many years in Edmonton. The streetwalkers know it's true. The police staunchly deny it. When Leo gets his hands on a decades-old police file that could bring down the entire police command structure, he has to decide whether the odds on living much longer are in his favor.

Leo Desroches is an original. Not giving any spoilers here, but his unusual coping mechanism to keep himself out of the casinos is not one that will have people cheering for him, but it will keep readers on their toes. By the end of chapter three, Leo had me reeling and I knew I had to know all there is to know about this character. Leo is an ethnic blend of Cree and French-Canadian, but the Cree doesn't show up in his face. He knows next to nothing about his native heritage, and is uncomfortable with any effort to alter that, although he has some curiosity about it. The author explores his conflicted character in a way that stops well short of yawning angst, yet gives a fully developed portrait of Leo, his strengths, his weaknesses, and the out-and-out flaws that would make him impossible to live with. But in the course of his investigations, Leo finds in himself two dichotomous traits he may not have previously been aware of: mercy and retribution. (He's treacherous, too, as so many reporters are, but he's known that for a while.) Whether, at story's end, Leo has done right or wrong is almost irrelevant. What he does is true to his character: he plays the odds. The greater the risk, the more of himself he invests. And Leo bets it all, every time.

The author uses Leo's job and his heritage to touch on many issues throughout the story: how native people are portrayed in the media; the discrepancy in the depth of official investigations of the murders of whites versus a more shallow approach to the murders of natives are but two. Although he shines a light on official police tolerance of their own crimes, he fairly acknowledges the presence of the many good cops. Happily,
Leo's character never stretches into Super-Reporter. What Leo gets, he gets through old-fashioned scutwork or by being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Maintaining the authentic image of the daily grind of a newsroom while writing to a story arc is difficult to achieve, but Wayne Arthurson has done an excellent job. Leo is a fascinating character and Edmonton has much to offer as a new landscape for lovers of crime fiction.

Although Leo, in first person, occasionally wanders off into some light exposition, it's never for long (unlike a certain late Swedish reporter-turned-novelist). Action and dialogue and intriguing plot turns swiftly follow. FALL FROM GRACE is the first of at least two Leo Desroches books, so the style should become even smoother as the writer gains comfort in the long-fiction form.


March 15, 2011


PI J. McNee was last seen nursing his grief and a crushed hand in THE GOOD SON. In the newest book, THE LOST SISTER (out today), McNee is still grieving but is slowly becoming a bit more involved in the world around him. When the case of a missing teenage girl, an only child, is put before him, he really doesn't want to know, not until he learns that the girl's godfather is a mobster, the same nasty piece of work to whom McNee owes thanks for that crushed hand. All along McNee's instincts tell him that his client, a highly temperamental fellow from out of town, isn't quite on the up-and-up. But every time our hero tries to back out of the case, his own curiosity and his desire for a little payback on the mobster suck him back into the search. This won't be the hardest case McNee will ever crack, but it may well be the bloodiest.

The idea of dysfunctional families is hardly a new notion in crime fiction (The Big Sleep, Savages) but because family dynamics can be twisted into so many different pretzel shapes, it's one that a good writer can always find ways to exploit. Author McLean does just that, eyeballing the extreme behavior people will display for their children, for their siblings, and for themselves. And no extreme is greater, of course, than that which McLean's characters will go to for themselves, no matter how much they tell themselves (and McNee) that they are doing these things for someone else.

Without beating the reader over the head with the questions, without taking sides with his characters, McLean leads one to ponder: Is maternal love a good enough qualification to make a woman a mother? What separates love from possession or even obsession? At what point must self-love trump the love for another?

As with his first book, there are no words or trees wasted in the telling of this bleak story. The author never displays an overfondness for the appearance of his own words on paper, never gets himself between McNee and the reader. The entire story has the bitter ambiance of a "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." all over it. Is it noir? Well, if everyone is wrong going in, and they're wrong or dead coming out, I think that qualifies.


March 8, 2011


Paris, 1924. The "Lost Generation" is busy losing itself in wine, writing, and love affairs. But not everyone is lit up in the City of Lights: the publishers of small, literary magazines are being systematically murdered. When one of the murders occurs a bit too close to home -- right at home in the midst of one of Gertrude Stein's salons -- the imposing Ms. Stein gathers the local mystery writers and charges them with finding the killer. But it's not that easy to find a killer who may actually be legion. And it's all too easy for the hunters to become the hunted.

As with the previous installments in the Hector Lassiter series, author Craig McDonald's fictional characters interact seamlessly with historical figures: Stein, Hemingway, Aleister Crowley, Ford Madox Ford, et al. The author draws them with a breathtaking, at times unflattering, accuracy. Nevertheless it is the fictional character of mystery writer Brinke Devlin who steals the spotlight, or rather, joins Hector Lassiter in it. A writer of similar talent as the late Craig Rice, but with, as McDonald describes her, the visual appeal of actress Louise Brooks (photo, above right)  Brinke is a woman with a mysterious past that comes forth to complicate her romance with Hector. Only 24, Hector has yet to write his first novel, but Brinke is challenging him to expand his writing horizons. Brinke's own style, the reader will find, will become Hector's: Write what you live; live what you write.

As in previous books, the author ties the story to an artistic/philosophical movement. (Who could forget the ultra-creepiness of the surrealists in TOROS & TORSOS?) Here the nihilistic underpinnings of Dadaism are exposed (and perhaps the author is setting the stage for the coming of existentialism?) as post-war rhetoric gone seriously off the rails.

The author seems to enjoy breaking the rules that his own characters lay down. For instance, when Brinke declares, "Killers simply don't kill for the complex or arcane reasons that they do in mystery novels," McDonald promptly proceeds to prove her wrong -- and yet, because this is fiction (and because McDonald can't resist playing - ahem! - head games (nor should he)), he also proves her right.

Hector and Hemingway are not the only familiar faces from previous books. Characters that play larger roles in other books in this series also make cameo appearances here (Donovan Creedy from PRINT THE LEGEND; Quentin Windly from TOROS & TORSOS), helping the reader to visualize Hector's life as a whole, not merely as episodes. In the same way that certain people appear, vanish, then reappear in one's own life, the same way those people sometimes have great, then little impact or influence in our lives, this is true for various characters of Hector's acquaintance.

The essence of young Hector's character is on more prominent display in ONE TRUE SENTENCE than in other books: his charm, his sexuality, his knight errantry, his 'do-it-myself' attitude, and especially his romantic side, his vulnerability to the woman he loves, are all revealed in greater depth. Hector is not quite yet the rugged, intellectual crime-writer readers have come to love but, under Brinke Devlin's influence, the metamorphosis is underway.

When reading a novel by Craig McDonald, the reader can take nothing for granted. Especially not the notion that one book will read much like the next. Where HEAD GAMES was wildly action-oriented, PRINT THE LEGEND was steeped in creeping paranoia. For all it's written in third person, ONE TRUE SENTENCE has almost the feel of a memoir but overlaid with -- or cloaked by -- a traditional mystery of its time period. While the events of TOROS & TORSOS sprawled across decades and continents, ONE TRUE SENTENCE occurs over one week, in one city. If you've read the previous books in this series, you may think you have some idea of what to expect from McDonald. You don't. He's getting more sly (and funny) about his inside jokes. And if you don't think so, I'll leave you with one character's alias: Elrond Huppert.