October 27, 2008

Darwin's Nightmare & Still Waters

I’m never sure, when I come across an engaging book from an unanticipated source whether it’s the work that has developed or that I’ve finally become sufficiently open minded to recognize what’s been there all along. Maybe I should just learn to enjoy the discovery. A couple of interesting noir reads have popped up recently in Canadian crime fiction.

Darwin's Nightmare
by Mike Knowles

ECW Press

183 pages
ISBN 13 978 1 55022 842 7

First is Darwin’s Nightmare by rookie Mike Knowles, whose publisher, ECW Press, specializes in mucking through varied pulp forms and conventions. What we have here is a homo-erotic thriller of a hardboiled variety familiar before it became safe for Dicks who love dicks to come out and shoot. But Wilson, the narrator/protagonist, is no Dick. He’s more like a low-level thief who works on assignment for mobsters but when an assignment puts him between competing criminal gangs his shoot-‘em-up skills far overshadow his light-fingering. What’s certain, and so important that much explanation goes to establish Wilson’s professionalism in these matters, is that our boy is no goody two-shoes.

He is raised by a funny uncle who isn’t afraid to smack the little monkey, something Wilson considers training and asks for more. Antagonists are mostly an endless series of big men, as in big men who carry big guns. It isn’t giving away too much to reveal that Wilson eventually pulls out his own gun and it is, of course, the biggest gun in the book. Action takes place in washrooms, hallways, cramped spaces and narrow passages often guarded by squads of men eager to treat Wilson to a brisk frisk before entering. But these guys are hirelings and Wilson is only moved when working for the man. Foreplay consists of overheated exchanges of blood-curdling threats. The few women encountered in Darwin’s Nightmare are victims, one the wife of a bar owner who is Wilson’s favourite wing man on forays into mayhem, and vice-versa.

The setting is Hamilton, Ontario, loosely interpreted to fit the plot, but that is established more by addresses than description. Wilson’s old, pseudo-beater Volvo is never slowed by one-way streets, potholes or entire neighbourhoods of road construction, for instance. That’s as it should be in this type of fantasy. Like Knowles I tread these mean streets but I don’t think you have to be a native to find the read a jolly romp of a kind once described as camp, before that too became a cottage industry and faded away. Familiars and initiates alike can give Knowles a pat on the bum for this nostalgic first effort.

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Still Waters
by John Moss

Dundurn Press
343 pages
ISBN 978 1 55002 790 7

John Moss' Still Waters is a Castle Street Mystery, a Dundurn Press line devoted to Canadian crimewriting, but not especially to noir or hardboil, so the fact that this is probably the densest, darkest dip I’ve had from this source is a pleasant surprise. A professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa, Moss spent most of his career writing the type of literary criticism that makes most fans of genre fiction gnash their teeth and wail “but I just want to enjoy the story.” Well good news. If it takes a career in academia to write such grittily complex, genre-jumping fiction, our education tax dollars have not been wasted.

For starters it’s a cosy, with a small collection of unlikely characters drawn to a Rosedale (Toronto) mansion: a nosy neighbour, an aloof mistress, her daughter, a pet shop owner, two police detectives and the medical examiner. The occasion is the death of the mansion’s owner and sole resident, discovered blissfully circling a backyard fish pond face down. Hold on, aren’t cops supposed show up at a murder scene? Of course, but this bunch are as eccentric as a meerschaum pipe. The back-cover blurb says the “Toronto detectives, David Morgan and Miranda Quin are like a married couple except for the sex.” That’s understatement. Their relationship is well beyond anticipation, each knowing the other’s interests, inclinations, experiences and thoughts, as much as they know them themselves, making for a lot of witty and insightful banter and affecting the investigation of the case. In fact, one of Morgan’s recent hobbies has been the study, but not the cultivation of koi, so he knows which of Toronto’s many pet-shop owners to call upon to maintain the deceased’s valuable sushi. Slowly it becomes clear that it is such past, seemingly random associations that have called all these specific characters to the mysterious mansion for their weekend of mayhem, as surely as a Christie-like written invitation, and that includes the detectives themselves.

Like a lot of Canadian noir, the story, if not the narrative, begins in a brooding, watchful countryside, tracing the fateful decline from summer idyll, through the metaphorical cross-roads and into the heart of the city. It’s Ontario Gothic a la Robertson Davies with catacombs and dark passages every bit as foreboding as the familiar rain-slicked streets. Moss does noir Canadian style with coppers pursuing corruption through their own do-good ambitions, saving the manipulative classes a lot of baksheesh. We’ve always sold ourselves cheap up here in the provinces.

Like Davies, there’s enough Jungian psychology and Freudian banter in Still Waters to fill a decent textbook, with ample opportunity to consider the nature of memory, loss and the role of the subconscious in fateful decisions. Even more chilling is that, like Ross Macdonald, Moss visits the sins and crimes of his characters onto their children, ensuring the doom of succeeding generations, but if you don’t like thinking such thoughts and prefer mysteries as entertaining escapes, Moss provides all the bells, whistles and satisfying endings appropriate to the happiest of Canadian crime fiction.

That may be what I find most chilling of all in this dank little tale.

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