Murder on his mind

by Juliet Waters

A growing number of crime fiction enthusiasts recognize Peter Kirby, BCL'83, LLB'85, as an author who is clearly on the rise. His first book, 2012's The Dead of Winter, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Book and introduced the world to Kirby's chief protagonist, Franco-Ontarian detective Luc Vanier, who the Toronto Star described as "a character likely to join the ranks of Canada’s enduring sleuth figures." His newest novel, Open Season, recently hit bookstores.

But in certain circles, Kirby is recognized for a different set of accomplishments altogether. In the legal community, he is better known as one of Canada's leading experts in trade and international arbitration law. In 2012, The American Lawyer listed him as one of Canada’s top 500 lawyers and he has been involved in post-conflict arbitration in the Balkans and in litigating disputes against the U.S. and Egyptian governments.

Given his unorthodox educational background, Kirby's achievements as both an author and a lawyer were hardly preordained.

We met up at his office at Fasken Martineau, a few days after a late summer fishing trip with his kids. On the way to his favourite spot in Square Victoria for coffee, he casually boasts, "I've trained my daughter well. She had to show her boyfriend how to gut and clean their catch."

Born in Ireland, Kirby grew up in a rough-and-tumble part of South London where he had to resort to his fists more than once. He emigrated to Quebec in the mid-seventies, at a time when many English-speakers were abandoning the province after the sovereignty-seeking Parti Québécois were elected for the first time. On his website, Kirby writes, "I figured, if the old establishment was running for the lifeboats, the city could be an interesting place to be."

A passion for economics drew Kirby to his chosen specialization in law, but it was his knife skills that paid his way through law school. As a young immigrant with no academic record and a CV that included a stint carving smoked meat at Ben's, Kirby decided to turn his life around. "I was such a poor student in high school," he recalls with a slight grin and the soft traces of his first accent."They used to post the rankings every term. I always started from the bottom. It was a lot faster." After enrolling as a mature student at Concordia, however, he found the inner resources to not only persevere, but to excel. He moved on to law studies at McGill, paying the bills by working the breakfast shift as an assistant chef at a hotel that is now a McGill residence.

These days, Kirby travels the world with the resources of one of Canada's top law firms behind him. Reading his novels, though, it's clear he's never forgotten what it's like to make one's way through life with next to nothing. His latest book switches deftly between two stories that test the drive and street smarts of the resourceful Detective Vanier. Katya Babyak is a young Ukrainian who believes she's been brought to Canada to work as a nanny, only to discover she's become cargo for North America's illegal sex trade. Sophia Luna is a journalist and Guatemalan refugee scheduled to be sent back to certain death as a result of Canada's increasingly tough screening process.

Two days after we have coffee, pictures of Alan Kurdi's tiny body will go viral online. But the global refugee crisis has obviously been front and centre in Kirby's mind, long before it became an issue in the Canadian federal election.

"We are witnessing one of the greatest human crises on the planet. Not just in Europe. Not just in Syria, but in South East Asia, in places like Bangladesh. We pretend we will not be affected by it, but we will. Right now, 3,000 migrants a day are entering Europe. And our solution as a nation is 10,000 over three years? That's only three days worth of migrants."

The scale of this tragedy is overwhelming. In the spirit of the brutal noir that pervades Kirby's work, there's no flinching from it. Some migrants manage to make it out alive, but more don't. Kirby hopes the violence of that reality isn't "pandering" to our worst voyeuristic inclinations, but "it is what it is," he insists. To read a Kirby mystery is to forget Montreal's comparatively low murder rates, the colourful summer festivals, and the ubiquitous Bixis on bike paths. Dreary winter days will always be ahead, and denizens on the margins will always be struggling.

As for how he manages to balance a demanding legal career with an emerging literary one, Kirby offers a brisk explanation with a smile. "I don't play golf."