Thursday, September 15, 2011


A Hostile Environment

I've been thinking about Mary Jane Maffini's Monday blog in which she lists the ways the Canadian landscape inspires the mystery writer. She talks about the sinister hush of a canoe sliding by the cottage in the middle of the night. The distant sound of a rifle shot. Even the weird yodel of a loon in the middle of the lake is enough to frighten the daylights out of a reader, right?

I've set most of my short stories in and around our cottage on Lake Opinicon in Eastern Ontario. In 2007 I edited, Locked Up, an anthology of mystery stories set on the locks and lakes of the Rideau Canal Waterway – a book that sold a thousand copies in the first summer. It turns out people like to read about scary things happening far away from the mean streets of the city. But I have to admit the Canadian wilderness has its limitations as a setting.

One of my favourite books of all time is Geoffrey Household's 1939 classic crime novel, Rogue Male. After an attempt to assassinate a European Dictator (presumably Hitler) the unnamed protagonist is captured, tortured and sentenced to death. He escapes to England and soon realizes there are several groups gunning for him. He digs an underground burrow where he hides out for weeks on end. The construction and provisioning of this cave and his plans to turn the tables on his pursuers makes fascinating reading. David Morrell says he based his Rambo novels on this excellent story.

Recently I read Elizabeth George's Careless in Red, in which Inspector Lynley, in his grief after Helen's death sets off to walk the Cornish Coast. After forty-odd days of hiking and sleeping in the rough he discovers a body and is finally forced to shower and shave.

Now, I want you to try to imagine setting either George's or Household's stories in the Canadian wilderness. I dare you.

Obviously winter is out. Sleeping outdoors in minus forty degrees is clearly impossible (and here you can choose either Celsius or Fahrenheit because at this temperature they're both the same.). Skin freezes within five minutes and the rest of the body quickly follows suit.

How about spring? Summer? Both protagonists would be eaten alive by blackflies. And when the blackflies eventually die off in summer, the deer flies, horse flies and mosquitoes have already taken over the territory. But even if the bugs didn't get
him, can you imagine any self-respecting bear allowing someone to build a competing den in his neighbourhood? Wolves? Wildcats? I don't think so. Raccoons would eat his food, porcupines would devour his boots. Snakes, skunks, rodents would make his life unbearable and what a wolverine or even a fisher would do to the fellow while he slept doesn't bear thinking about.

So although I'll keep setting my stories in the wilderness, I'll have to give up my dream of writing the Canadian equivalent Rogue Male.

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared in the January issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


  1. I think Milk of Magnesia Mist is one of the finest examples of the unique dangers of Canada.

  2. Thank you, Mary Jane. I loved writing that story.