Time and Place

Reviewed by Beverley Haun

Setting and time dominate as shaping factors in these three mysteries: Rosedale, Toronto, in the autumn of 1951; Vancouver at the end of the summer of 1983; and a boys’ washroom in a contemporary Ottawa high school for one hour during a lockdown.

Straight to the Head is a gritty noir. It is also a masterful postmodern romp. We experience the gritty noir city by night and we bump into Pierre Berton by day. In Eaton’s department store we hear this announcement: “Attention shoppers. Would the owner of an eight-year-old boy, answering to the name of Michael Bublé, please claim him at the service desk of the toy department? Thank you.” The penultimate scene of the novel is set in a lush restaurant at Expo 86 populated with a who’s who of Canadian power brokers political, cultural, and industrial. Pierre Trudeau sits with Jimmy Pattison; Arthur Erickson regales Bing Thom; the Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup laugh; Dr. Foth and John Turner drink triple scotches on the rocks.

In Straight to the Head, place is evoked and its vision shaped through the eyes of a visiting eastern-European American and two Vancouverites—a young Hong Kong Chinese Canadian and an Anglo-Canadian. It is a literary novel evocatively conjuring Vancouver as it positions itself to host Expo 86. At the same time, it is a homage to hard-boiled and urban noir mystery genres. As in a hard-boiled detective mystery, there is a first-person narrator who has been hired to solve a crime. But he is not a detective. Rather, he is a jaded, weary fixer, “the hunter,” who describes Vancouver to us as he enters by train from the United States. Where he sees American West Coast cities as fully formed, he sees Vancouver as sleepy and about to awaken. The hunter is not the only narrator. He shares the task with two other characters conjured from the urban noir tradition. Dorothy Kwan is the classic noir victim. She narrates the opening of the novel and we learn she is a young woman, an only child recently orphaned, depressed, alone in her parents’ home, shafted by her tenant who has skipped out without paying the rent. But of course things are not as they seem. The third narrator, Ted Windsor, begins as both a suspect and a victim. He is recently returned without funds from a year in Japan. To survive, he now works as the night clerk behind the desk of a sleazy downtown hotel/rooming house. But his clothing reveals another kind of life. The chapters of the book alternate among these three narrators. At times, two or all three are in the same chapter together, but we are always offered only one viewpoint.

Organized crime has broken down along the industrial waterfront of Vancouver. Money and drugs have gone missing from the corrupt local police who were overseeing this branch of underground commerce. Where and how to retrieve the drugs and money is the task of the hunter. What follows is a dance of characters moving from victim to perpetrator and back to victim in a series of episodes. The power dynamics shift and reshift as greed and character flaws have their inevitable effect. Throughout, we experience Vancouver on foot, by car, and by boat, and in homes and department stores, restaurants, hotels, and bars.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley, is the seventh in a series. Flavia de Luce novels are young-adult mysteries by virtue of their protagonist as well as their family-friendly content, but they are marketed to adult audiences and have an appeal to those who have lived through the era they depict or those who are interested in period-piece mysteries. They do, however, need to be read in order as a series and not as standalones. Background information about members of Flavia’s family and their occupations has obviously built over the seven volumes and gaps in background knowledge leave the reader in the dark on several matters.

Flavia solved her first murder as an eleven-year-old living in 1950 in an English manor house. This novel is set in 1951 and she is in Toronto at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy on a cul-de-sac just off the Danforth. In the required Gothic garb for a manor-house mystery, Flavia arrives at night and Bodycote’s is described as a couple of acres of stony darkness that had once been a convent. The Gothic atmosphere is maintained by having a strict no-electricity-at-night rule—candles only. And as so often happens, no sooner has Flavia gone to bed in her new school than a desiccated corpse, wrapped in a Union Jack, falls out of her chimney.

As to the solution of the mystery at hand—or lying wrapped on the carpet, as it were—Flavia’s extensive knowledge of chemistry comes to the rescue and aids in the resolution. Our own knowledge of science as twenty-first-century readers also comes into play and we can appreciate the dark humour in having Flavia hope that a hot water pipe she is about to crawl over is wrapped in asbestos to contain the heat and save her from being burned. It is a pleasure to have such an erudite protagonist, which made it all the more glaring to have her refer to the primitive human brain as being designed to dodge dinosaurs. Shame on you Flavia; you know better.

Shooter, by Caroline Pignat, is very tightly written, masterfully shaped, and narrated for maximum tension. The novel is a “locked-room mystery.” Usually in this genre the murder victim is found in a locked room and the story is spent on efforts to solve the crime. In Shooter, the mystery actually occurs in real time outside the room with those trapped inside trying to figure out what is happening in the rest of the school and what, if anything, they can do to solve the crisis. The entire novel takes place in one hour. The only access to the exterior events is texting on one phone—and that phone dies partway through.

The characters, two girls and three boys, are locked in a boys’ washroom on the third floor of a high school in Ottawa. The school is in lockdown, which we soon learn is not a drill. As in Straight to the Head, each chapter is narrated in the first person—in this case, by one of the characters locked in the room. The chapter titles are the name of the character speaking in that chapter. Digital clock faces at the end of chapters cue the reader to the progression of time. One character has autism, one has symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, one self-defines as a loser, one sublimates her own desires to the needs of her family, and one seems to have it all. As the hour progresses, the intensity of the situation brings out the worst and then the best in these teens. Pignat uses a very small space and very limited time to great effect.

Nixon and Bradley evoke a strong sense of place in their period mysteries. That’s part of the fun. In Pignat’s novel, place is a critical factor in the drama itself. Her novel is wonderfully accessible for younger readers. Nixon’s is a delightful portrait of a nightmare. And Bradley’s falls poignantly somewhere in between.

This review “Time and Place” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 130-132.

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