Original Prin. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The White Ribbon Man: A Mystery. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Woven into the fabric of two distinctly different plot lines by two stylistically opposed authors is one thread which, against all odds, connects these stories, albeit tentatively. This thread is the Six, the Big Smoke, the Queen City herself: Toronto. Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin and Mary Lou Dickinson’s The White Ribbon Man are both set in the 416, and neither author shies away from featuring the city. While Boyagoda’s descriptions of his home city serve as stark juxtapositions to the unfamiliar, exciting, and dangerous Middle Eastern city of Dragomans, Dickinson’s include landmarks that create a sense of familiarity for her Ontarian readers, allowing them to explore themes such as murder, betrayal, faith, and community in a comfortable atmosphere.
Boyagoda introduces us to Prin, who is, like the author, a university professor from Toronto. As a Catholic who tries to be good, Prin operates according to his sense of duty in all areas of his life: raising his four daughters, maintaining his passionless marriage to his well-meaning wife, and helping his sinking university to stay afloat. However, his dedication wavers when Prin is diagnosed with prostate cancer. Feeling shaken, mortal, and anointed, he accepts an opportunity to participate in a liaison meeting with a group in Dragomans that is willing to buy the university, thus saving it and Prin’s colleagues from redundancy. Prin’s wife vehemently opposes the trip, not only because of the dangers of travel in the Middle East, but also because accompanying Prin is Wende, the svelte, single seductress whom Prin dated before settling down into the good Catholic life. Despite his wife’s best efforts to dissuade him, Prin and Wende head to Dragomans for a trip that will change their lives forever. Boyagoda masterfully combines hilarity (one of my favourite moments is when Prin and his father are heckling their Kiwi tennis opponents: “It’s my serve, you jailbird son of a kangaroo”), spiritual exploration, and horrific excitement. He manages to manoeuvre his reader so that when the shocking climax happens, we feel just as stunned as the unprepared protagonist.
Unlike Boyagoda, Dickinson keeps her characters at home, showing that we don’t need to look far to find monstrosity; we may even find it in our own holy places. Dickinson focuses on the tightly knit community of a downtown Anglican church shaken by the discovery of the body of a murdered woman in the basement washroom. The White Ribbon Man is Dickinson’s first crime thriller, yet she uses the narrative structure developed in previous works to explore the mystery from multiple angles and perspectives. We meet and come to know Dickinson’s characters, the congregation, through their reactions to the dead body and their statements to Detective Jack Cosser as they attempt both to help the investigation and to remove themselves from suspicion. On the face of it, Dickinson’s novel is a classic whodunit. But this book engages us on a much deeper, more substantial level because she uses the genre to explore important and timely questions about humanity. Who are we when nobody is looking? In times of trial and uncertainty, do we unite as communities, or do we splinter? What does it mean to be accepting of others’ lifestyles and choices while also maintaining personal and spiritual ideals? How well do we actually know and trust each other? Even if the novel does not offer succinct answers to these questions, we are left pondering them ourselves.
In terms of style and content, Boyagoda’s and Dickinson’s novels could not be more different. And yet, at the heart of each is an underlying comfort and familiarity that offsets the tumultuous, sometimes sinister, subject matter. Both authors allow their beloved city, Toronto, to take on a supporting role. Whether Prin is struggling with matters of faith and a midlife crisis, or Detective Cosser is uncovering a congregation’s guilty secrets, the city offers the kind of comfort that hangs around in the background, never making itself conspicuous, yet always there. It’s the kind of comfort we can only find when we go home.