Tuesday, April 16, 2013
(Editor’s note: My column today for Kirkus Reviews looks at the quite remarkable breadth of crime and mystery fiction coming out of Canada, but also notes that many of those books and authors are largely unknown, especially to Americans. During my research for the piece, I asked Kevin Burton Smith, the Montreal-born editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, for his thoughts on why crime fiction from north of the border does not receive more attention from U.S. readers. His entertaining response is posted below.)
Why should the mystery genre be any different than anything else? There are probably more Americans who believe President Obama was a Communist sleeper agent born in Kenya than can name the current Canadian prime minister.
Of course, there are business reasons, copyright reasons, foreign rights, retail, and distribution and blah blah blah.
But culturally, historically, even geographically, Americans tend to not pay much attention to their northern neighbor, anyway. Canada is just a small blip in the perpetually inward-looking American consciousness. Foreign countries just don’t cut it, unless there’s a hook. Like, oh, a current war, or it’s a tourist destination that’s somehow safely familiar yet exotic.
But not too exotic. Good God, no ...
I remember as a kid, watching U.S. news broadcasts beaming through from Burlington and Plattsburgh, and being dismayed to see absolutely no land mass above the border on the weather maps. As though Vermont’s northern boundary was defined by the Atlantic Ocean. We didn’t even rate a few squiggles to denote our existence on a weather map.
Still, I was left momentarily speechless when an American (a schoolteacher, no less), upon being informed that I had just moved to Southern California from Montreal, asked me--in all sincerity and without a speck of irony--“Wow! Were you a long time on the boat?”
The boat? Evidently all American TV news shows use the same maps ...
So we’ve pretty much accepted that to many Americans we’re just the Great White Yawn. Vancouver is “pretty.” Toronto is “clean and safe.” And everywhere else in Canada is just a trivia question in a game that most Americans don't want to play.
In the buffet of the Americas, we’re the other white meat.
A land of Peter Jennings impersonators, suspiciously polite but not dangerous.
And the differences are more annoying to many Americans than exotic or colorful. Or colourful. Like, “What’s a Harvey’s? Why can’t we just go to a Burger King?”
Who is this Tim Horton guy?
And what’s a Canadian Tire?
England is exotic, because they talk funny there and they drive on the wrong side of the road. Australia has shrimp on the barbie. And kangaroos. The French are, well, they’re the French. Mexico and Central America are full of drug cartels and guys with fierce mustaches, and Russia is packed with double agents, KGB gangsters, and vodka-slurping pole dancers.
But to Americans there’s nothing particularly different about Canada. A slight accent when the word “about” is pronounced, maybe, and the perception that the Mounties (“the Canadian FBI”) wear goofy park ranger hats and bright red coats. All that makes us more “quaint” than interesting.
Canada’s too similar--at least to American eyes--to be exotic. Americans constantly tell me how Canadians are “just like Americans.” Except maybe for the French, but then--as many an American has told me--French Canadians aren’t really French.
But I can assure you that you’ll find very few Canadians (barring a few unrepentant separatists) who think Americans are “just like Canadians.”
You get into crime fiction, and the problem is amplified. Canada is viewed by Americans as “safe.” As in boring. There’s not enough crime up north to matter, never mind read about, fictional or otherwise. Although these same prejudices don’t seem to stop Americans from tuning into the weekly goings-on in Midsomer Murders, set in a small English village seemingly populated entirely by slightly kinky killers, murderers, serial rapists, and tea-drinking, tweedy victims-in-waiting. The place makes Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove look like Sesame Street.
And our respective national myths play into it, as well.
Americans have this massive screeching vicious bird of prey as their national mascot. Canada has a beaver that, like, chews wood.
Americans tend to believe in truth, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and all those other things Superman says. Plus blasting the head off anyone who gets in their way. Canadians hope for happiness, too, but most expect they’ll have to work hard for it. And we don’t really believe in violence except as a last resort. Or if hockey is involved.
The Canadian constitution suggests “peace, order, and good government” as the way to go, and while it hasn’t always been the case, I think the Canadian national psyche wants to believe it’s possible. Americans? In the 10 years I’ve been here, approximately half the population has always believed the other half of the population (and whoever’s in power in the White House) are coming for them. And have armed themselves accordingly ...
Americans had a Civil War and killed each other for five long years simply to iron out some constitutional wrinkles. Canadians deal with the same kind of issues that tear at the very fabric of our national existence by arguing and debating. Endlessly. It’s been going on for almost 150 years now. Granted, it’s a slower process, but it doesn’t seem to leave as many dead people lying around with their legs blown off.
So, no matter what the body count may be, the notion of Canada as a crime-filled cesspool of corruption and violence is a hard sell to Americans. It’s like sending coal to Newcastle. I mean, the United States is a country where the leads always bleed and murder and mayhem are accorded instant celebrity status, flashy TV graphics, and one-name recognition, like Cher or Liberace. You say Columbine, Waco, and Newtown, and the entire world gets “it.”
Now that’s name recognition.
The Canadian version? 1989’s École-Polytechnique massacre. But that incident in Montreal doesn’t even ring a bell for most Americans. Probably more recall the fictional version used as the basis for a Law & Order episode, in which the mass killing was--of course--reset in New York City. It’s just easier for Americans to believe that that kind of stuff happens at home; not in good old safe, quiet, and boring Canada. Statistics, of course, bear me out.
Which may explain why Canadian-set hard-boiled crime fiction, in particular, is a difficult sell to Americans. Notice that most of the Canadian crime writers who are successful in the States eschew Canadian settings (Linwood Barclay, Alan Bradley, and Peter Robinson, for example), go globetrotting (Hilary Davidson, Ian Hamilton, and Anthony Bidulka) or, if they do set their stories at home, operate in a more traditional, almost classical (and sometimes downright cozy) mystery vein (like Howard Engel or Louise Penny). Hell, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple could move right into Penny’s quaint little Quebecois village, Three Pines, and feel right at home. She and Inspector Gamache could have a nice cuppa and compare notes.
I remember a mystery-writing friend from Montreal, Carol Epstein, once confiding how her publishers insisted she set her new proposed mystery series “anywhere but in Canada” if she hoped to sell it south of the border. That was years ago, but to a large extent it’s still true.
Americans just don’t think of Canadians as twisted and violent and nasty as they are.
Which is a good thing. It’s all part of our plan ...