Crime & Canadian Women
- David Skene-Melvin (Editor)
Investigating Women: Female Detectives by Canadian Writers. An Eclectic Sampler. Simon and Pierre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Veronica Ross (Author)
The Anastasia Connection. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heta Pyrhönen
Investigating Women, an anthology compiled by David Skene-Melvin, is designed to demonstrate what the distinctly Canadian version of the popular figure of the female
detective looks like. The book consists of Skene-Melvin’s historical survey of the field, starting from the mid-nineteenth century and extending up to the present day. The scholarship is meticulous and the bibliographical information useful; any student of Canadian crime fiction will find these data indispensable. The survey is followed by thirteen samples of mainly short stories by both male and female writers, for the criterion of choice is the gender of the detective, not that of the writer. Hence the aim of the collection is not so much showing how feminism and crime fiction interlace than illustrating the national flavor of the genre. The opening of the introduction makes interesting, although surely controversial claims about the Canadian instantiations of the genre. Skene-Melvin claims, for example, that "Canadian crime writing is more subtle, more psychological, more caring" than its American counterpart; that "when our villains are brought to justice, we want the government to do it"; that "we don’t believe in privatizing justice"; and even that "our fiction reflects life." Such statements provoke the reader’s curiosity about his proof for them; unfortunately, what follows is simply a listing of Canadian-born writers who have written about female investigators, brief autobiographical information, and short characterizations of their books. The Canadian aspect goes virtually unexplored, and, with writers such as Katherine V. Forrest who has lived most of her life in the United States and whose books are situated in Los Angeles, it is very difficult to perceive how her books would express this quality. Neither does a careful reading of the short stories themselves make this national focus any clearer. Although hinted at, another unexplored aspect is the link between the investigator’s gender and feminism; now
the reader only has the editor’s occasional remarks about the "didactic feminism" that "spoils" this or that author’s work to go by.
The anthologized stories are for the most part contemporary; some are original stories written expressly for this book. The quality of the writing varies greatly, from Josef Skvorecky’s delightful, but definitely anti-feminist Eve Adams stories, to Katherine Forrest’s, Medora Sale’s and Margaret Haffner’s well-crafted pieces, to rather dull examples. The various aspects associated with female, if not feminist, detectives are well represented, ranging from self-assertion, independence, compassion, and caring to such typical topics as incest, abuse, and the examination of the social network in which crimes take place. As samplers go, the book gives the reader a fair picture of the Canadian state of the art.
The Anastasia Connection by Veronica Ross goes well together with Skene-Melville’s anthology, for it presents a female, although not a feminist, amateur detective, the cookbook and mystery writer Carolyn Archer, who accidentally stumbles on a murder. The case is possibly linked up with the fate of the enigmatic Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, who allegedly survived the Bolshevik execution of her family. Carolyn Archer ponders whether the querulous owner of a local gardening nursery was murdered because he knew too much about Anastasia’s fate and her family as well as the Romanovs’ secret cache of money. The book belongs to the whodunit tradition represented, for example, by Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, which dramatizes the inevitable probing of the past that is typical of the detective story by reopening a historical "murder case." Its use of the historical material is ironical, however, as Ross employs the detours into the past for demonstrating the fascination with intrigue and plotting: the possible Anastasia connection feeds the characters’ imaginations, breeding more or less improbable explanations. The protagonist’s two writerly preoccupations, cooking and murder, give the investigation its flavor, as the daily chores of running a household, disciplining a brand new puppy, helping relatives and friends move the plot forward, contributing to the solution. In this way, Ross manages to unite the mystery of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, with the mysteries of everyday life. The result is an amusing and entertaining exploration of the generic motif of role playing: are the characters who they say they are or are they someone else? Most likely a Polish peasant woman, Anna Anderson’s audacious role playing on a grand scale is made to reflect a general hiding behind masks. This link gives the smoothly written book a soberness, as the solution shows that what unites the grand royal sham with more ordinary deceptions is the shame characters feel for what they or those closest to them are.
- Needing to Forget by Sara Crangle
Books reviewed: Wound Ballistics by Steven Manners and The Ability to Forget by Norman Levine
- Celebrating Barry Callaghan by Douglas Ivison
Books reviewed: Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works by Priscila Uppal
- "An Alien Soil" by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: Slammin' Tar by Cecil Foster and The Origin of Waves by Austin Clarke
- Disappearances by Paul Denham
Books reviewed: The Breakwater House by Pascale Quiviger, Euphoria: A Novel by Jan E. Conn, and The Book of Canadian Prose: Vol. I. Early Beginnings to Confederation by A. J. M. Smith
- Feminist Paradoxes by Marie-Thérèse Blanc
Books reviewed: Settler Feminism and Race Making in Canada by Jennifer Henderson
MLA: Pyrhönen, Heta. Crime & Canadian Women. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 174 - 176)
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