Tuesday, October 25, 2011
TUESDAY BRINGS TROUBLE
Late in the nineteenth century, an American cavalry regiment met a lone Canadian Mountie escorting a band of outlaws across the border.
“Where are the rest of you?” asked the regiment’s colonel.
“Oh, he’s back at camp cooking breakfast,” the Mountie replied.
The story—apocryphal possibly, just as likely true—is recounted by David Skene-Melvin in an essay introducing his bibliography, Canadian Crime Fiction.
It set me thinking about some arresting (so to speak) differences between U.S. and Canadian crime writing that go back to the founding roots of our two nations: one born of revolution, the other breast-fed in the lap of Queen Victoria.
Skene-Melvin believes Canadian crime writing is “more subtle, more psychological, more caring” than in the U.S., “where the gun is forged into the collective soul, where the gunslingers of the wild west became the hardboiled private eyes in the cities.” Canada never had a wild west because the Mounties got there first. (We’re about the only country in the world with a policeman as a national symbol. Not a policewoman—we’re not as egalitarian as we claim to be.)
When Canadian villains are brought to justice, “we want the state to do it, not vigilantism,” Skene-Melvin says. In the U.S., on the other hand, the outlaw is an icon. Billy the Kid, a hot-headed (possibly psychopathic) killer, is portrayed as heroic, Don Corleone as noble. If a novel’s hero is a cop, he or she is a rebel. (Though frankly, in my experience from my days as a criminal lawyer, the rebel cop is one of the most unlikely fictions ever invented.)
But in Canada, we have the caring cop hero. Eric Wright, creator of the Inspector Salter series, says he constructed his protagonist “according to what I like about Canadians—he has a gentleness and a fundamental sense of decency.” Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks does not have to shoot his way to a resolution, he thinks his way there. The late L.R. Wright’s Sergeant Karl Alberg was as gentle as his author. Our private eyes are like Benny Cooperman: soft-boiled. (Like a klutzy version of Howard Engels himself, come to think of it.)
Peter Sellers (the living, not the late), another crime writer and anthologist, offers an interesting theory about why the private eye developed only late in Canadian fiction: “Because it’s an American convention that usually delivers a happy ending or at least a resolution. I think Canadians, certainly of an earlier generation, were too aware of the role of chance in life to want that.”
But wait a minute, does this comparison of our two crime-lit cultures still hold as we work our way through the twenty-first century?
The American ideal, the private eye or the loner cop as gladiator—indeed the concept of crime fiction forged from a national instinct to rebel—is getting a second look these days. For example, Harper’s former editor Lewis Lapham: “In place of the reckless and independent-minded individual once thought to embody the national stereotype (child of nature, descendant of Daniel Boone, hard-drinking and unorthodox) we now have a quorum of nervous careerists, psalm-singing and well-behaved, happy to oblige, eager to please…”
The supposedly enduring Canadian images (King of the Royal Mounted with his loyal Husky at his side, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon mushing up the frozen Klondike) were never particularly Canadian, the former conceived by Zane Grey in the pillowed comfort of an estate in Southern California, the latter the creation of Fran Striker, also a Yank. They didn’t need to live in Canada to write about it. It was enough effort imagining it.
Sellers dismisses the notion that Canadians, with our constitution quietly calling for “peace, order and good government” (while the Declaration of Independence triumphantly tolls for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) defer to authority. Or that our authors mainly write cozies featuring introspective cops. In fact there’s a strong noir tradition, he says, and some Canadian offerings can be savagely chilling.
He gives as an example R. Lance Hill, later a Hollywood script writer, who wrote hard-edged thrillers—Nails caused a stir for its violence and edgy style. Needles, my first novel, came out around the same time, shocking staid reviewers with its junkie prosecutor, its villain (a sadistic heroin kingpin known as The Surgeon) and its bribe-taking (horrors) RCMP officer.
The new tradition continues in the works of Andrew Pyper, especially his beautifully written, explicitly violent, The Trade Mission. Giles Blunt, John Farrow, Kathy Reich, Brad Smith can be dark. Or try the black humor of Bill Gaston, his noirish and funny The Cameraman, about the making of a snuff movie.
That’s another element of Canadian crime literature that should not be overlooked: we often like to sprinkle our offerings with the salt of humour, as in this brutal description of a Pyper character: “the guy behind the counter at the corner store with the nose hairs that reached halfway down his lips, fine and searching as butterfly antennae.”
(A source of inspiration for the Canadian wedding of crime and humour may be Ontario broadcaster R. Howard Lindsay, who in the Thirties authored a hilarious stream-of-consciousness mystery, Fowl Murder.)
My own recent novels have tended in that direction: my current Arthur Beauchamp series with its eccentric rural characters. But I’ve also become more comfortable with injecting progressive themes and sub-plots: my last several novels touch on pro-choice issues, reactionary U.S. politics, environmental threats to global survival.
Our homegrown talent is finally being recognized internationally. It has helped that Canada has produced such luminaries as Atwood, Ondaatje, Shields, and Munro—their successes alerted the world to seek out others toiling in the genres of mystery and thriller. The late Carol Shields was herself an Arthur Ellis winner for best Canadian crime novel, and Margaret Atwood has taken the Dashiell Hammett award—for literary excellence in crime writing—with The Blind Assassin. In her acceptance speech, she admitted to an early addiction to detective stories. (She still needs an occasional fix, and generously helped edit one of mine, Slander.)
A little history to explain how we got where we are:
Though Canada’s first home-grown murder mystery saw print in 1876, it was not a proud moment in our history. Surrendering to the hypocrisy of the times, the author, Mary Leslie, used a male pseudonym, then had to withdrew all copies because of an uproar in the Ontario town where her story seemed (too accurately) to be set.
Through much of the 1900s, Canadian crime writers masqueraded as American or British, often hiding behind pseudonyms, as if in shame. Luke Allan, Guy Morton, Sara Woods were among dozens of best-selling Canadians afraid to come out of the closet.
“Until well into the 20th century, Canadian crime writing in particular and Canadian literature in general, suffered from a serious problem: the slighting of Canadian authors,” Skene-Melvin says. “It was too expensive to produce small numbers of domestic editions when the country was swamped with American culture and had to compete with British as well.”
He blames it on a culture of “intellectually snobbish librarians.” Through the 1940s, the public library systems did not purchase popular fiction—“it was considered déclassé by libraries, and crime fiction beyond the pale.” In the 1950s, fiction collections were shelved well away from the “literary” sections so as not to contaminate them.
These self-styled elitists believed we had a culture that was little, provincial, unknown, and they covered up their shame with snobbishness. That attitude went on to infect academic libraries and graduate English courses, where students were made to believe that Hugo and Dostoevsky and Dreiser had not written crime novels.
So it’s no wonder that under that kind of censorious pressure, we are late bloomers. Even today, our self-appointed guardians of culture tend to leave us off the literary tea guest lists. She writes mysteries, my dear, she’ll show up reeking of gin. Or you get: He writes thrillers? How crass. It’s so American.)
That all began to change in the late 70s. When Needles won a $50,000 first-novel award, there was controversy about a literary award going to an unabashed, unalloyed thriller. One reviewer called it “a thoroughly nasty book, adding: “The author of this unwholesome collage of sex, crime, horror, and violence is a Vancouver lawyer with considerable experience in criminal law. He should know that a decade ago, before decency was outmoded, his book would have risked prosecution under Canada’s obscenity laws. Today, in our permissive society, the book wins a literary prize.”
Others applauded me for having the courage to set it in Vancouver, some expressing shock when they learned I wasn’t an American: Canadians weren’t supposed to write thrillers. (Conversely, when Platinum Blues, then Slander, were set in the U.S., I was dumped on by my Canadian fans for “selling out.”)
Andrew Pyper, who was ignored at home until Lost Girls, set in Ontario, was discovered in Britain, says Canadians have long suffered a “constipation about what we call literature, a teetotalling Presbyterian reflex. Someone told a lie about literature in Canada early on, someone who prefers books that are morally obvious, quiet, settled. It’s a lie that became institutionalized.”
In rebellion to this attitude, new voices are rising in strong, well-crafted novels and short stories that don’t fear the darkness. (See, we can rebel, too, we Canadians. And good literature often does come from rebellion: Steinbeck, Lewis, Richard Wright, Hammett, my boyhood heroes)
David Skene-Melvin says, “Canadians today are telling their own stories, no longer feeling obliged to hide their nationality nor pretending to be British or American.” Still, it remains a struggle for many who write Canadian crime in these cool Northern climes. “Too Canadian” is a phrase American acquiring editors still tend to use. I’m proud to be too Canadian.
William Deverell was a journalist for seven years. As a lawyer, he was counsel in more than a thousand criminal cases, including thirty murder trials, either as defender or prosecutor. His first novel, Needles, won the $50,000 Seal Prize in l979 and the Book of the Year Award in l981. He has also published numerous magazine articles and short stories. A feature film of Mindfield, for which he wrote the screenplay, was released in l990. Trial of Passion launched his first crime series and won the 1997 Arthur Ellis prize for best Canadian crime novel, and the Dashiell Hammett award for literary excellence in crime writing in North America. He is the creator of the CBC's long-running series Street Legal.
William Deverell can be found hiding out at www.deverell.com