Fradkin’s latest a masterfully-written page-turner
WHISPER OF LEGENDS
By c.b. forrest
An apprentice author takes comfort in beholding the fruits of a life dedicated to the craft of writing. To see P.D. James release one of her best recent works (Death Comes To Pemberly) at the age of 92. To behold as Cormac McCarthy’s writing somehow, almost impossibly, grows closer to the bone as he nears 80. Checked out any James Lee Burke lately?
All of this to say, while Barbara Fradkin is not anywhere near 80 or 90 (like maybe half that – cheques made payable to ‘cb’, thanks), she does have a considerable oeuvre in her Inspector Green mystery series. And so it was a pleasant surprise as a reader to see Fradkin take a big risk and move her protagonist from the known urban environment of Ottawa to the wild and tangled Northwest Territories. And it was an even more heartening as a fellow writer to see her reach a whole new level with Whisper of Legends, the ninth in the Green series (Dundurn Publishers, $17.99).
The premise for the story is every parent’s nightmare: Green’s daughter Hannah goes missing while on a canoe trip to the mind-bogglingly massive Nahanni River (30,000 square kilometres, 600 grizzlies, and countless insects to drive the city boy Green crazy). A canoe believed to belong to her four-party group is found onshore, but the local Mountie detachment isn’t convinced the teens qualify as “missing” yet, and it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack at any rate. Ever the pragmatist, Green decides to do the job himself. He turns to his reliable and longtime friend, Staff Sergeant Brian Sullivan, to accompany him to the Northwest Territories to find Hannah and bring her home.
Things get more tangled than the woods of the Nahanni when Green finds out that Hannah’s boyfriend on the trip has unclear motives for failing to register their expedition with park authorities. The ensuing search allows Fradkin to richly describe the park and the river in turns of phrase that will transport you there to the point where you begin to scratch at imaginary mosquito bites.
‘Green slept fitfully, disturbed not so much by the tandem snoring of the other two men nor the by the eerie grey of the northern night, but by fragments of dreams lurking at the borders of his consciousness.’
Green’s city-boy-goes-wild offers new opportunities for Fradkin to mine the soul of this man and his feelings for his loved ones in new and deeper ways than ever before. After nine novels, that’s saying something about Fradkin’s respect for the reader, her craft, and her protagonist. Green is vulnerable, he has no jurisdictional authority, and so we see the evolution of new thinking and problem-solving from this cop who has supposedly “seen it all”.
The story evolves from a mainstream novel in the first several chapters to a bona fide murder mystery as bodies are discovered and new and very interesting characters are introduced (ie. Elliot the expert tracker) to full effect. There is an unexpected twist ending that again displays Fradkin’s chops in the department of plotting. With Whisper of Legends, Fradkin has written her best work yet and it will stay with the reader like the lonesome call of a loon across a midnight lake.
I managed to catch up with Fradkin for a phone interview while she was on a book tour through the Northwest Territories and Alaska with talented and prolific fellow author, Vicki Delany.
CBF: You took a break between Beautiful Lie The Dead and Whisper of Legends. Did you need to recharge or were you busy with other projects?
BF: A bit of both. I wanted a break because I had something else I wanted to write. Series, even when you enjoy the characters and the place immensely, are constraining. If you want to explore other characters or types of stories, you have to break out. In my case, I wanted to write a biography of my father.
CBF: Taking a series character away from his setting - especially when that setting is an important aspect of the character - is a risky venture. But taking a gritty urban lead out to the middle of the woods is even Riskier. What pros and cons did you weigh when you decided to set the novel in the Nahanni?
BF: None, actually. I just wanted to write the story and I didn't think how risky it might be to the series. I was more focused on how risky it would be to Green, and that was an exciting prospect. Writers are always looking for tension, conflict and novelty, which Green vs. Nahanni had in spades. As I was writing along, I did wonder whether I would lose those readers who enjoy the urban grit and who, like Green, have no interest in wilderness. Time will tell. But I also hope that new readers who passed over the series because of its Ottawa setting will tune in.
CBF: Writing this series represents a significant portion of your adult life. Have you looked way down the road and imagined a time when you wouldn't have an Inspector Green novel on the go?
BF: Yes. I know no series character can go on forever. I don't know when, because I don't plan ahead, but sooner or later Green will run out of cases. But I have a lot of other ideas to pursue, all it takes is courage to break out.
CBF: You are in Yellowknife right now, and were at Malice Domestic a few weeks ago. What are some of the key ingredients a writer needs in order to be successful?
BF: Wine, actually. And at this point I can only think of three ingredients: perseverance, belief in self, and an independent income stream. Rich spouses fit the bill.
C.B. Forrest’s short story, Hangover At Sunrise, will appear in June’s Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He is nearing the completion of an epic saga about modern organized crime whose title he will not divulge though he believes it will be a best-seller translated into twenty-seven languages, including his own.