A Mystery Milestone: Gail Bowen and Canadian Crime Writing

  • Gail Bowen (Author)
    An Image in the Lake: A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

In 2021, mystery writer Gail Bowen published An Image in the Lake, the twentieth installment in her popular amateur detective series featuring now-retired academic Joanne Shreve (formerly Joanne Kilbourn) and set in Saskatchewan. Bowen is one of the most prolific and popular mystery writers in Canada and has often been lauded as “the queen of Canadian crime fiction.” Crime Writers of Canada has recognized Bowen with a special achievement award for contributions to the genre of crime and mystery writing and in 2018 named her the first and thus far only woman Grand Master of crime writing in Canada. Bowen, who has also written plays, a spinoff mystery series for young readers, and a how-to guide for writing mysteries, inaugurated the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries in 1990 with the novel Deadly Appearances. She has developed a strong cohort of devotees who have followed Bowen’s amateur sleuth through a multipart biographical narrative developed over a succession of novels. In the early years of the millennium, the novels were adapted into a series of six television movies produced by Toronto-based Shaftsbury Films, featuring Wendy Crewson as Joanne and airing on CTV. Given this distinguished career and long-lived success, it is surprising that Bowen’s work has generated so little critical attention: only one scholarly essay is devoted exclusively to her work (Bedore), and two further critical readings position Bowen’s fiction in relation to other authors (Haliburton; Perkowska-Gawlik).


With her two most recent novels, The Unlocking Season and An Image in the Lake, Bowen has shifted from publishing with McClelland and Stewart to the smaller ECW Press, suggesting that her long-time loyal readers, who have followed the series for decades, are perhaps not being joined by the numbers of new readers that Bowen deserves. McClelland and Stewart reportedly wanted her to bring the series to a close after over more than thirty years of publishing the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries; Bowen declined, taking the most recent two books to the Canadian indie publisher (Portman). So Bowen’s heroine heads confidently into her fourth decade of solving mysteries. In light of the author’s continuing career accomplishments with this durable series, now is an opportune moment to take stock of the distinctions and deficiencies of the most recent novel, An Image in the Lake, and to review their context within the broader currents of Canadian popular mystery fiction.


In the introduction to their 2014 collection of essays, Detecting Canada, editors Marilyn Rose and Jeannette Sloniowski note how little critical work has been done to date on Canadian mystery, detective, and suspense fiction. Their volume is the first to address the popular genres in depth and across historical periods. Over the seven years since Detecting Canada was published, the dearth of critical work on the Canadian mystery has remained largely unchanged, with only a handful of essays on Canadian writers in the academic journal Clues, as well as two chapters in Monica Chiu’s Scrutinized! Surveillance in Asian North American Literature. At the same time, in 2005 the Globe and Mail heralded a new golden age in mystery fiction in Canada; by most measures, this prediction has been realized. Several Canadian writers are published in dozens of languages: Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries have become an international publishing phenomenon, as have Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks procedurals and Linwood Barclay’s thrillers. Acclaimed adaptations of Maureen Jennings’ historical Toronto series, Murdoch Mysteries, and Giles Blunt’s northeastern Ontario Cardinal novels have been produced for television, and an adaptation of Penny’s Three Pines novels is in production, to be streamed internationally on Amazon Prime with Alfred Molina as Inspector Armand Gamache. Given the surge in the popular appeal of the genre as practiced by Canadian writers, sustained critical attention seems overdue. Indeed, established Canadian authors have long been influenced by the formulas of the mystery novel in so-called literary fiction, including novels such as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Carol Shields’ Swann: A Mystery, Timothy Findley’s The Telling of Lies, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, and Kerri Sakamoto’s The Electrical Field.


The mystery genre is conventionally broken down into sub-genres which reflect differences in setting, characterization, style, plotting, and degree of graphic violence. The police procedural, for example, is an enduring favourite, with its origins dating back as far as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. It features law enforcement professionals investigating a significant crime, typically a murder. Canada, with its stereotypical pretenses of peace, order, and good government, has dozens of works in the procedural sub-genre, including fiction featuring RCMP officers, such as the excellent novels of the late L. R. Wright, set on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Eric Wright, Louise Penny, and Peter Robinson have set their very different police series in Toronto, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and Yorkshire, England, respectively. Recently, the procedural hero has been refashioned in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak team in the Toronto Police Service. In Khan’s series, Canadian-set plots expand to international contexts and are grounded in issues related to Detective Khattak’s Muslim identity. All these authors adhere to the convention of focusing on a police investigator whose integrity is unshaken through the turmoil of difficult investigations that expose them to violence and corruption.


Hard-boiled detective fiction is an alternative generic permutation that, in instances from the 1920s onwards, features a lone private investigator drinking and wisecracking through violent exploits on the “mean streets” of the modern North American city. Véhicule Press has recently celebrated Canadian contributions to the hard-boiled tradition by republishing several noirish novels originally released in the 1950s and set in Montreal by David Montrose. The sub-genre is gently parodied in the late Howard Engel’s comic Niagara-based “soft-boiled” Benny Cooperman mysteries and, arguably, in Thomas King’s current series, which features laconic Cherokee ex-cop Thumps DreadfulWater. Eve Zaremba’s Helen Keremos series, with the first openly lesbian private eye character, broke ground in the genre in the 1970s and 80s; the series was revived last year with Amanda Deibert and Selena Goulding’s graphic novel adaptation of Zaremba’s 1987 novel Work for a Million, published by McClelland and Stewart. Howard Shrier’s hard-hitting Jonah Geller books, each installment set across the Canada-US border, are a recent incarnation of the hard-boiled narrative that makes the American roots of the genre palpable in the transnational geography of the plot.


The historical gendering of the genre is worth noting, with writers like Raymond Chandler expressing masculine scorn for the more feminized form of the “cozy,” a mystery novel typically set in an idealized small town or otherwise closed community and featuring an apparently unlikely amateur investigator, such as Agatha Christie’s elderly Miss Marple, an eagle-eyed spinster who restores order to a disrupted community by solving an intricately plotted puzzle. As the saying goes, the cozy is a story in which several people are killed, but nobody really gets hurt. In contrast to the hard-boiled novel, the cozy treats violence with delicacy. This sub-genre, whose origins are in the interwar period, continues to thrive. In the late Lyn Hamilton’s mystery series featuring Torontonian antiquities dealer and amateur sleuth Lara McClintoch, for instance, crimes invariably occur in a remote social setting, such as amidst an isolated archaeological crew or en route among a tourist group. It is indicative of this series’ cozy identification that in 2003 one of these novels, The Celtic Riddle, was adapted as a TV movie for the Murder, She Wrote franchise, with iconic amateur investigator Jessica Fletcher (played by Angela Lansbury) substituted into Lara’s role. Alan Bradley has put his own successful spin on the sub-genre, further, with his historical Flavia de Luce cozies, narrated by an unlikely eleven-year-old crime-solving prodigy. The mystery, then, in various permutations, continues to be a robust Canadian genre.


The cloistered setting of the cozy is refined in the popular academic or campus mystery, where a closed college or university environment gives rise to violent crime and the investigator is a member of an intellectual community. This sub-genre provided the initial generic matrix for Bowen’s series. A former professor of English herself, Bowen introduced Joanne Kilbourn, an instructor in the department of political science at a university in Regina and commentator and aide-de-camp in Saskatchewan progressive politics. Over the course of the series, university politics of various kinds come to the fore, from the contentious manifestation of anti-violence feminism on campus to department-specific turmoil. Indeed, Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik has compared one of Bowen’s installments in the series with Amanda Cross’s ground-breaking feminist take on the campus novel Death in a Tenured Position. (Cross is the pen name of Columbia English Professor Carolyn Heilbrun.) Situated at the intersection of the internal politics of the university and the party politics of Saskatchewan and Regina, as Pamela Bedore puts it, “each novel’s central crime raises a major socio-political issue . . . placed alongside more insidious issues such as political, journalistic, and legal ethics” (154). Bowen has not shied away from depicting the seamier side of contemporary life, including child sexual abuse, prostitution, and gang activity—not typical topics for academic mystery novels. Among Bowen’s significant contributions to the genre are the ways in which initially insular settings become bound up in issues such as gender, class, and racial politics; her focus on social inequality is matched by only a handful of writers, including the late Toronto author Pat Capponi in her two Dana Leoni mysteries.


Bowen’s series introduced an unusual protagonist: a mid-life widowed mother of three children who had to fit sleuthing between writing political speeches, teaching university classes, and caring for family. An overachieving Everywoman, Joanne Kilbourn proved to be a resilient series protagonist whose multiple work and community commitments rendered her involvement in solving a long string of murders at least somewhat plausible, although the series has a high body count. One of the most impressive accomplishments of Bowen’s work has been not just its longevity, but also the ongoing development of its heroine and her family and community networks over successive installments. Joanne goes from being a part-time university instructor in the first novel to a full-time professor; she goes through relationships and losses to, in the most recent books, remarriage and retirement. One thinks of parallels with the likes of Scottish author Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, which have followed his protagonist over a similar biographical scope through conflicts and career moves and into the challenges of later life. Unlike loner Rebus, however, the dynamics of Joanne’s community and family relations provide a complex infrastructure for both the individual mystery plots and the series as a whole. This infrastructure goes back to Joanne’s childhood; through the murder of her politician first husband; over subsequent romantic involvements; and through the marriages, divorces, births, and adoptions of her burgeoning family and friends. Bowen has pioneered in the genre by using the form of mystery to explore her protagonist’s domestic life and community, situating her stories among this rich and engaging set of family, professional, and community ties.


In the beginning of the series, Joanne is in a relatively precarious position: the mother of three children and the widow of the province’s attorney general, who was murdered a few years earlier after he stopped on a snowy highway to assist a young couple. Although over the worst of her immediate grief, Joanne is faced with rebuilding a life for her children and tackling a PhD to try to make her contract employment at the university more permanent. Her challenges are compounded when her close friend and provincial leader of the Opposition, Andy Boychuck, is poisoned while delivering a speech at a rural political rally, leading Joanne to investigate his family and personal lives in order to solve his murder. Over the course of the next several books, Joanne takes on investigations involving neighbours and friends, university community members, and, in one especially poignant book set in Saskatoon, childhood friend and noted artist Sally Love, whose adolescent affair with her agent becomes the stuff of scandal. This particular plot strand has proven a rich vein for the series with Joanne’s discovery, several books ago, that Sally is in fact her half-sister and that Sally’s daughter Taylor, whom Joanne adopted and raised after Sally’s murder, is her niece. In this way, Bowen creates a rich and distinctive hybrid between the mystery novel and the family melodrama.


In An Image in the Lake, Joanne deals with her past in the midst of a set of conflicts that include the tangled realms of politics and broadcast journalism. As the novel opens, Joanne’s son-in-law, successful radio host Charlie D., seeks her advice about an increasingly toxic network television workplace where two senior women have been driven out—one by a sex scandal and the other by the complaints of a group of student interns. Joanne and her lawyer husband Zachary Shreve provide backseat counsel to Charlie. Soon, however, events transpire that force Joanne into closer contact with the emerging drama’s principal players, including a charismatic young woman and her destructively unhappy mother: a scarred, fragmented, and violent family that contrasts Joanne’s copious and loving kin. Meanwhile, Taylor has discovered that her girlfriend, Vale, has been having an affair with the co-star of the TV miniseries based on Joanne’s early life, leading Taylor to flee to the security of the family home. Many of the novel’s events are recounted second- or third-hand, with key plot elements recapped in dialogue rather than depicted directly. This format gives the book a less vigorous pace than previous instalments in the series, where Joanne investigates more actively and experiences more personal peril as a consequence.


To make sense of the convoluted plot, the narrative must also describe characters and revisit events from previous novels. The cast of players in Bowen’s series has expanded dramatically as Joanne’s four children have each developed their own romantic entanglements or started a family; Joanne, at sixty, is a matriarch overseeing an ever-expanding brood. These loving and complex relationships are at once the backbone of the series and an increasingly obtrusive element in each novel’s mystery and detection plot which, indeed, becomes almost perfunctory in An Image in the Lake. Unlike the earlier books, where Joanne undertakes dogged investigations despite her myriad domestic responsibilities, in this novel the investigation of crime is secondary, with Joanne leaving the more active detecting to the police while she busies herself with domestic routines, social events, and rituals of the early fall season. The growing cast of characters and plotlines, dating back to the earliest instalments in the series, assume the reader’s knowledge has accumulated through the previous books. Yet the network of affiliations is becoming unwieldy, even for well-versed devotees.


This is further complicated in recent novels further complicate this complexity with a set of dramatic events related to an equally elaborate cast of characters for a television adaptation of Joanne’s life story that is developed in A Darkness of the Heart, produced in The Unlocking Season, and aired in An Image in the Lake. The overwhelming extent of this constellation of relationships is acknowledged in An Image in the Lake by the inclusion of a long prefatory list of dramatis personae describing the characters’ roles and relations—a sprawling group whose connections to the protagonist require considerable explanation. ECW attempted to address this issue when, in coordination with its release of Bowen’s previous novel, The Unlocking Season, it published an online companion character guide, complete with intersecting family trees, to initiate readers into the world of Joanne Shreve.


On the positive side, this network of affiliations and proliferating stories, developed over a number of books, has allowed Bowen to explore the extended repercussions of violence and loss in a way that is unusual for the mystery genre. Indeed, An Image in the Lake involves creative narrative dimensions by which the story gestures toward not simply solving a mystery, but also healing the wounds of broken relationships and tragic death. For example, Joanne’s former best friend, Jill Osiowy, whose personal betrayal led to the rupture of their relationship in an earlier book, returns in this story to make amends with those she hurt. Jill’s reconciliation with Joanne’s eldest daughter, Mieka, is portrayed as one of the novel’s several illustrations of kintsugi, the Japanese art of “repairing broken pieces of pottery with lacquer and powdered gold” in order to show rather than hide the seams (350). In the same spirit, Joanne’s artist daughter Taylor paints a mural in the Shreve family home in commemoration of a community and family tragedy from an earlier installment in the series.


The focus on home is elaborated in the wider setting of the novels. From the first introduction of Joanne Kilbourn to the most recent volume, Bowen has produced a socially and politically informed series with a unique and emphatic sense of place. She has imbued the city of Regina with the kind of fascination more often seen in larger, signature urban settings for mystery novels, such as Chandler’s Los Angeles or Rankin’s Edinburgh. Bowen’s Regina is a living, breathing, flawed city in need of attention and repair, but vibrant and diverse to its core. Set in various Regina neighbourhoods, Bowen’s novels explore the city’s complex cultural geography and socio-economic divides. In light of the ongoing popularity of Canadian mystery fiction both at home and overseas, it is worth noting that Bowen’s particular form of prairie regionalism is far less romanticized or prone to cliché than the settings of many of her most successful contemporaries. In Louise Penny’s Gamache series, for example, the Eastern Townships of Quebec are an idealised, almost magical country region, while in Robinson’s grittier Yorkshire, where contemporary racial and sexual politics do surface more readily than in Penny’s work, there is a sentimentalization not found in Bowen’s fiction.


In several recent novels in the series, Joanne’s social conscience is pricked by the stark contrast between her own family’s affluence and the poverty of inner-city Regina. In these novels, Bowen engages more directly with issues related to Indigenous urban populations and the legacy of residential schools and colonialism. Nevertheless, she has been attentive to anti-Indigenous racism since the first books in the series, as particularly emphasized in Joanne’s relationship over several novels with Ojibway police officer Alex Kequahtooway. In recent books Bowen has provided a nuanced appraisal of how developers and urban planners can work collaboratively with residents—sometimes with a tinge of noblesse oblige—to increase the life-chances of Indigenous children caught up in intergenerational poverty and trauma. But while urban problems and Indigenous issues have been prominent in Canadian culture in the past several years, these elements have become more muted in Bowen’s fiction of late: Alison Janvier, aspiring Saskatchewan premier and new leader of the provincial party Joanne and her husband support, is of Métis heritage, but this detail receives only cursory attention in a plot bustling with interesting secondary characters, several of whom are robust enough to merit their own plots.


In this novel, too, Bowen’s socio-political concerns have receded in favour of attention to Joanne’s large family. In An Image in the Lake, many of Joanne’s encounters find her nestled contentedly into her family’s gated-community cottage complex or among social elites at clubs and refined dining establishments. Joanne’s pleasure in these privileges is at once well-earned and somewhat frustrating for readers who have grown to admire a protagonist who has previously demonstrated an ability to juggle myriad responsibilities and weigh competing moral imperatives. Joanne has always been the moral—and even moralizing—centre of each novel, and Bowen’s series has explored weightier topics than is typical for academic or domestic mystery novels. As Joanne’s financial stability has increased, in substantial part due to her marriage to cutthroat attorney Zack Shreve, she has been vulnerable to accusations of complacency, which this particular volume seems to bear out. At the same time, Bowen’s compelling characters and her careful attention to Joanne’s relationship to husband Zack, who suffered a spinal cord injury in childhood and uses a wheelchair, is one of the ongoing strengths of the series, and her depiction of their passionate and mutually supportive married life avoids either stigma or stereotype.


All of the disparate elements—the depictions of politics, of media, of family life, and of violent death—that make Bowen’s series successful are present in An Image in the Lake, but they coalesce less readily than in some previous novels. Some threads are left hanging, such as a brief sub-plot involving the party candidate’s sexual abuse by a high school teacher. The novel’s adversaries, too, are relatively puerile and underdeveloped compared to those in previous novels, and their motivation is thin: Bowen works with a Nietzschean theme that is superficially applied, although it ostensibly inspires the interns’ machinations. And she seems unselfconscious about how the urge for power works closer to home, in her husband and his partners’ sometimes venal legal practice. Zack’s ruthless, individualist approach to law is an intriguing contrast to Joanne’s largely compassionate attitude and liberal politics, but we don’t see them engage directly. Many of the secondary characters are undeveloped, and their integration into the novel’s whole often seems desultory. As the family melodrama comes to the fore in this book, the detective and mystery elements fade into the background, and for the first time Bowen’s different genres seem to be genuinely clashing.


While there is some faltering in the most recent installment, the enduring appeal of Bowen’s novels is indisputable. As Bedore has noted, much scholarly work remains to be done on the Joanne Kilbourn-Shreve series—and, more broadly, Canadian manifestations of the mystery genre. For those who have not yet dipped their toes into Bowen’s work, An Image in the Lake will likely prompt readers to reach back to the earlier contributions to the series, allowing them to immerse themselves in the immediate pleasures of a whole series of satisfying mysteries. Such readers will experience the distinctive ways in which Bowen has made her mark on the genre of the mystery by developing a social vision, a distinctive regional setting, and a collection of characters who continue to have the potential to expand, mature, and intrigue.


Works Cited

Bedore, Pamela. “A Colder Kind of Gender Politics: Intersections of Feminism and Detection in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Series.” Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Detective Fiction, Television, and Film, edited by Jeannette Sloniowski and Marilyn Rose, Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014, pp. 151-77.

Blockhuis, Tania. “The Unlocking Season Character Guide.” ECW Press, 31 Aug. 2020, https://ecwpress.com/blogs/news/the-unlocking-season.

Bowen, Gail. An Image in the Lake: A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery. ECW Press, 2021.

Caldwell, Rebecca. “Whodunit? Who Isn’t Doing It?” The Globe and Mail, 13 Apr. 2005,


Chiu, Monica. Scrutinized! Surveillance in Asian North American Literature. U of Hawai’i P, 2014.

Sloniowski, Jeanette, and Marilyn Rose, editors. Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014.

Haliburton, Rachel. “The Expressive-Collaborative Construction of Morality in Canadian Detective Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection, vol. 37, no. 1, spring 2019, pp. 70-80.

Perkowska-Gawlik, Elżbieta. “Victimization in Academic Mystery Fiction.” The Campus Novel:  Regional or Global?, edited by Dieter Fuchs and Wojciech Klepuszewski, Rodopi, 2019, pp. 111-21.

Portman, Jamie. “Regina Author Marks Thirty Years of Her Fictional Sleuth.” Regina Leader-Post 19 Sept. 2020, https://www.pressreader.com/canada/regina-leader-post/20200919/281505048646588.

Yossman, K. J. “Alfred Molina to Play Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in Amazon Series Three Pines.” Variety, 2 Sept. 2021, variety.com/2021/streaming/news/alfred-molina-armand-gamache-three-pines-1235055145/.

This review “A Mystery Milestone: Gail Bowen and Canadian Crime Writing” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 5 Oct. 2022. Web.

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