Thursday, April 19, 2012


The Underling

I read a book recently that I really loved. This isn't unusual in itself. I like books just about as often as I dislike them. The thing is this wasn't a book I expected to like as much as I did. First of all, it's not a mystery, although it has some pretty suspenseful moments and it evolves into a dandy spy story at the end. And secondly, the heroine of the novel is a secretary, of all things.

The Underling, by Ian McKercher, (GSPH, 2012) is about the beginnings of the Bank of Canada as seen through the eyes of young Frances McFadden. Frances was no ordinary secretary although she was probably not unique among her peers in the Government of Canada and its agencies. Remember that women who chose this profession (and it was one of only a handful available to us in the first half of the twentieth century) often gave up any chance of marriage or families of their own. It was only in the sixties that the Bank of Canada allowed women to remain in their jobs once they married.

Frances is seventeen in 1934 when she's plucked out of Ottawa's High School of Commerce to organize the research facility that would become Canada's central bank in 1935. Although young and inexperienced, she is a perfect character to lead readers through Canada's formative years as an economic player on the world stage. She's efficient, articulate, resourceful and most of all, she's inventive. The men in this heady world of finance were far too busy going to meetings to actually carry out the plans they made. It was women like Frances, who with little direction or supervision figured out how to make things happen. In 1939, with war looming, Frances sails to Europe to rescue the Polish Gold reserves from a rapacious German Reich.

Half the fun of reading The Underling is trying to figure out what is historical fact and what is fiction. McKercher's Ottawa of the thirties with its streetcars and elevator operators rings true. The author is an historian and he obviously knows old Ottawa inside out. William Lyon MacKenzie King is a character in the novel as is Graham Towers, the first Governor of the Bank of Canada. We do know that the Polish gold reserves were sheltered by Canada during the war but whether they were captured in a friendly heist by a twenty-two-year-old girl is something I prefer not to question. There are some stories that are so well written that I allow myself to be swept away and want to believe they actually happened.

The official book launch for The Underling will take place at 7:30 p.m. on April 22 at Glebe-St. James United Church hall, 650 Lyon St. Ottawa. The book is available at independent bookstores in Ottawa as well as Chapters and online at Kindle and Kobo.

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 will appear 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.

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