Murder they wrote

by Juliet Waters

You’d probably have to hire a detective to find the few people out there who’ve never been hooked by a Law & Order rerun, a moody noir thriller, or a cozy (the industry term for the small town whodunit). The writer and Jungian psychotherapist, Thomas Moore, speculates that the appeal of the detective story “lies in the deeper mystery of life and death... [it] is a version of the ultimate mystery that defines our days.” Emerging Canadian crime writer Deryn Collier thinks the attraction “has something to do with restoration of order. Our lives today are very chaotic... So, if you can sit down and enter a world that has distinct boundaries, where there are huge problems, but at the end of your time in that world, everything is solved and all the questions are answered, there's this delicious feeling of, 'oh it does work out.’” Whether the explanation for the genre’s ubiquity is found deep in the soul or riding the troubled surfaces of daily life, there should be little surprise that Collier is not the only McGill grad who is achieving success as a professional mystery writer.

Deryn Collier BA'93: Brewing a mystery

Deryn Collier

“I knew when I was seven years old that I was going to write mystery novels,” says Collier from her home in Nelson, B.C. When she was a teenager, Collier’s parents moved from Ottawa to Montreal and enrolled her in what was then the High School of Montreal on University, across the street from McGill. The chronic bookworm, who had already read all the required books for grade ten English, was allowed to do an independent study, most of it researched at the McGill Libraries; so, the University was already something of a second home before she began attending McGill herself.

At 35, married with two young children, Collier hadn't yet written a mystery. She was working at a brewery in the Kootenays, and about to be promoted to safety inspector. “I started to think ‘when am I going write these mysteries?’’’ So, one day in 2006, she quit her job to pursue her dream. “I knew the only way I was going to get any peace was to do everything that I could to be successful. Starting with writing the best book that I could.”

Before submitting her first manuscript to agents, or even showing it to friends, Collier entered it in the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. It won. Confined Space, published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster, features Bern Fortin, an ex-Canadian Forces commander struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome. When a body is discovered in a brewery in a small mountain town, Bern, now a coroner, sets out to find the murderer, with the help of safety inspector Evie Chapelle.

Six years after shying away from that promotion, Collier is now promoting her book at events alongside international mystery maven, Louise Penny. “She’s reinvented the cozy,” says Collier who considers Penny a major influence. Penny’s success gave Collier permission to ignore some early advice she got when starting out: not to set her book in Canada. “Louise Penny showed that it could be done.”

Jonathan Woods, BA'70: Pulp is the new noir

Jonathan Woods

Meeting up with other mystery writers can be a major perk of success. Woods has just returned from Noircon, when he talks with me from his home in Dallas. Bouchercon is the major annual mystery writer’s conference. But Noircon, which takes place every second year in Philadelphia, “is smaller and more intimate,” and Woods explains, “the intellectual level is higher.”

No stranger to high calibre conversation, the retired assistant general counsel for Nortel shared an apartment with John Ralston Saul when they were both at McGill. One might not suspect this from the names of the webzines where Woods published his first stories. But Plots with Guns, Thuglit, and Pulp Pusher, are part of a contemporary trend in retro-pulp noir that have earned Woods a comparison to Quentin Tarantino, and the 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Short Story Collection for Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

His first novel, A Death in Mexico, boasts blurbs from writers as popular as Michael Connolly and Ken Bruen. When asked what attracted him to crime writing, Woods replies that he doesn’t really see it as a genre. “I’ve always considered the very best of crime writing to be up there with the best of literature, period. ”

A Death in Mexico is set in the pretty colonial town of San Miguel D'Allende, a favourite escape for ex-pats, and at least one literary icon, D. H. Lawrence. “I’m very much in love with Mexico,” says Woods. “I’m attracted to the interplay of European and indigenous culture.” Given, however, that his book opens with the discovery of a woman’s body in the central plaza, her eyes gouged out, Woods admits with a rueful chuckle that he “probably painted the town in a darker light than it should be.”

Christopher R. Cox, MA’92: True noir

Christopher R. Cox

A Good Death by Christopher R. Cox opens with a classic noir scenario. An adulterous husband fractures the jaw of ex- journalist turned private investigator, Sebastian Damon. Fortunately, Damon’s client, the wronged wife, is an executive at an insurance firm who makes it up to Damon by offering him a better job. She sends him on assignment to Bangkok on the trail of a fraudulent life insurance claim.

Cox used to come across these kinds of insurance fraud stories in the early nineties when his job as a features writer for the Boston Herald took him on assignment to South East Asia. He started his first draft of A Good Death in 1997. “I would write in in drips and drabs,” he says from his home in Acton, Massachusetts. He thought he might have more time to devote to the project after accepting a buyout package from the Herald in 2005. But his work as an adventure-travel journalist (his non-fiction book Chasing The Dragon is about Burma’s narco-warlords) still kept him too busy to attend to Damon and his exploits.

Then, as for his protagonist, misfortune opened a door; though this one led nowhere near an exotic trip. In 2010, Cox was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. After a regime of chemotherapy and transplants, Cox was quarantined for several months. “I was always complaining that all I needed was two or three months to finish it. So, be careful what you wish for” he says with a dark laugh.

While not officially in remission, Cox says, “the bad numbers are down. And everything’s going in the direction it’s supposed to.” There are few things more likely to boost morale than a book deal with a New York publisher. A Good Death was picked up by St. Martin’s Press and is set for release in February 2013. Fortunately, the scenario leaves open plenty of opportunities for a sequel.

Rick Blechta, BMus'73: Musical mystery tour

Rick Blechta

Like almost every mystery writer, Rick Blechta came to the genre first as a fan; but his creative career for most of his life has been as a musician. “I was doing music seven days a week and I just got burned out. Rather than pull away from it completely I thought, I need to do something creative that doesn’t involve music.” Blechta has always enjoyed writing, and had minored in English. The urge to try his hand at mystery came about while he was reading a Dick Francis novel with a musical component. “The jockey in the story was the only member in his family who wasn’t a musician. And it was really obvious that Dick hadn’t consulted any musicians. I thought, ‘I could do better than that.” He started with a short story. “Four-hundred pages later, I realized I wasn’t a short story writer.”

Since then, Blechta has written eight novels and served as president of the Crime Writers of Canada. In 2006, his seventh book, Cemetery of The Nameless was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award. His most recent, The Fallen One, is partially set at McGill. The protagonist is an opera singer mourning the loss of her husband, seemingly killed in a fire. Recovering from grief, she takes a position teaching a master class at the Schulich School of Music. She discovers that her husband had connections to the Hell’s Angels. Then one night, after performing at the Paris Opera, she catches a glimpse of him - looking very much alive. In a recent review, the National Post noted that Blechta's "clear enthusiasm for the operatic world" gives the book some extra oomph.

Blechta didn’t need to do much research for the music school, but the musician’s life also helped him out with the Hell’s Angels subplot. In the mid-seventies, Blechta played in a popular prog rock band, Devotion. “Somewhere along the way we picked up some fans in a biker gang. They started sort of following us around. It was a little frightening. I mean they were very nice, and they were just like any other fans. But you know, there’s that always that element of danger.”

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