Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What’s a Little Crime Between Neighbors?

As part of my research into the subject of Canadian crime fiction--conducted for the purpose of writing a two-part feature for Kirkus Reviews--I had the opportunity to interview Marilyn Rose, a professor in the Department of English at Ontario’s Brock University. With Jeannette Sloniowski, an associate professor in Brock’s Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, Rose has created the online database CrimeFictionCanada, a scholarly resource dedicated to the study of detective fiction in English. Rose and Sloniowski are also co-editors of the book Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Detective Fiction, Film, and Television, which is due out in July from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Rose was kind enough to answer my questions, via e-mail, about Canada’s crime-fiction-writing history, the trouble Canadian mystery authors often encounter in making their work better known to American readers, and her favorite current north-of-the-border contributors to this genre.

J. Kingston Pierce: Can you pin down for me the names of the first couple of Canadian crime writers, who they were and what/when they wrote? And how long a history does this genre have in Canada?

Marilyn Rose: Jeannette Sloniowski and I are co-editing a collection of essays on Canadian crime writing ... called Detecting Canada. In it, there is an essay by David Skene-Melvin that deals with the history of Canadian crime fiction, which he divides into ... five periods: from the earliest begetters to 1880; 1880-1920; 1920-1940; 1940-1980; and 1980 to the present. He states that the decade 1970-1980 is one of transition in which the genre, as a truly Canadian expression of national consciousness, begins to emerge full bore.

Skene-Melvin argues that the Canadian crime-writing tradition begins with broadsides published in 1783 and 1785, which recorded speeches and confessions of convicted criminals about to be hanged for murder and theft. He notes, however, that the earliest English-Canadian crime novel per se was Walter BatesThe Mysterious Stranger, which was published in the United States and in England in 1817. He notes that Bates was the Loyalist sheriff of King’s County in New Brunswick who bases the novel on the real-life story of Henry More Smith, alias “Henry Moon,” a notorious horse-thief, confidence man, and jail-breaker in the community at the time. He says that “the best candidate” for first French-Canadian crime novel was probably L’influence d’un livre (The Influence of a Book), by Phillipe-Ignace-François Aubert de Gaspé, published in Quebec City in 1837.

Skene-Melvin then traces the history of Canadian crime writing--which is remarkably full by his account--focusing particularly on the emergence, between 1880 and 1920, of what he calls “the Northern”--crime stories that deal with the Canadian West and particularly the North-West Mounted Police (which evolved into the RCMP, or “Mounties”). Many of these novels celebrated Canadian landscapes, particularly wilderness settings, as well as referencing specific historical events, such as the Riel Rebellion of 1885 in Manitoba and the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon in 1897-1899. Such novels of mystery and adventure were popular in Canada as the Canadian West was opened and settled, and they played into romantic attitudes towards the vast and unknown western landscapes that were held by the settled easterners in Canada, who had heard about but not seen such places and events.

The popularity of the “Mountie” subgenre makes sense, Skene-Melvin argues, since there wasn’t much of a “wild west” in Canadian settlement history. As many others have pointed out, civilian settlement of the Canadian West was preceded by the presence of the Canadian Mounted Police (not to mention banks and churches!) under the national banner of “peace, order, and good government.” This is a very different mantra than that of the United States, with its reference to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

By the 1940s many Canadian crime writers were turning to the cities and to the kinds of crime fiction already popular in the United States and Britain, from village or drawing-room mysteries to stories set in well-established and flourishing Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto. By the time of the final two decades of the 20th-century there is a great deal of Canadian crime fiction in circulation and it reflects the many subgenres that appear elsewhere--the United States, the UK, Australia, Europe, and so on.

There is certainly an abundance of contemporary Canadian crime fiction available for American readers to sample. As Jeannette and I note in our introduction to Detecting Canada, there are Canadian “cozies,” police procedurals, “noirs,” and so on. Themes vary widely and reflect contemporary interests. There are works of detection reflecting ethnicity, gender, class, and demographic divides such as the urban, suburban and rural, and political issues of all kinds, including Canadian-American relations. Canadian crime fiction is exceptionally diverse, as is the country itself--which includes substantial aboriginal and immigrant populations, the existence of provinces and territories with separate and powerful governments and statutes, and regional formations with their own habits and identities, all of which are reflected in detective stories of one kind or another. It is the heterogeneity of the crime-fiction genre in dealing with such national diversity that is noteworthy.

We invite you to look into our database called CrimeFictionCanada and to “play with” our list of Canadian crime novels. You can search our lists by author, or book title, or by keywords. In doing so I think you will be amazed at the breadth and variety of Canadian writing that exists, much of it produced within the last 20 years or so. Whatever your interest, you will be able to find examples of novels that fit your profile. ... [R]eaders might be interested in this searchable database as a source of information and for leads in terms of finding new writers and series that might be right up their alley.

JKP: Is the tradition of writing crime fiction in Canada as long and strong among French-speaking writers as it is among English speakers?

MR: There is a long tradition of crime writing in French, but this is not an area of expertise for me. My understanding is that much of French-Canadian crime fiction is in the tradition of the French policier, but I can’t speak authoritatively about this. I would say there is less French-Canadian crime fiction, and fewer sales, than in English Canada, but that has to do with the relative size of Anglophone and Francophone reading populations here (there are substantial numbers of Francophone readers in Quebec, New Brunswick, and parts of Manitoba, I believe, but few elsewhere) and with the access that Anglophone Canadian writers have to readers in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world, at least potentially.

JKP: It seems that U.S. readers are familiar with some writers they don’t even realize are Canadian--Linwood Barclay, Louise Penny, Alan Bradley, etc.-- but are pretty ignorant about the vast majority of Canadian authors working in this genre. Why do think that’s the case?

MR: It’s a matter of awareness, of course. It is hard for Canadian writers to penetrate the sphere of “readerly knowledge” that characterizes American readers of this genre. American media focus on American writers, of course, and only rarely does someone like Marilyn Stasio, of The New York Times, review Canadian crime fiction at all--though it is always exciting to us when she does. And then there is the fact that reviewing of books in newspapers and magazines has itself declined with the reduction in number of book review sections in these publications. Literary “buzz” now seems to depend much more on reader-to-reader connections, especially in the social media. And then there is the David and Goliath or elephant-and-mouse issue. Canada is a very small nation and market compared to that of the United States. There is so much American crime fiction produced and consumed in the U.S.--and so much of it is good and well-publicized.

In addition, however, there is, perhaps, the “exotic” factor. American audiences do tend to be attracted to stories set in faraway places, we are told--but Canada, which is not well-known by Americans, generally speaking, may not strike American readers as particularly exotic. It seems to be seen as a rather more rustic, ice-and-snow version of the United States, though with a decidedly more leftist bent. This monochromatic version of a hugely diverse nation to the north may not have intrinsic appeal to American readers--until they sample it through fiction. Certainly publishers in the past have tended not to be confident that they can drum up interest in Canadian-set stories in the American marketplace: we are told that Canadian writers are often advised to neutralize or obscure their Canadian settings in order to appeal to American audiences.

However, times may be changing in this regard. I participate in many electronic networks where crime fiction is discussed in the United States and Britain, including the redoubtable Dorothy-L forum ... From this vantage point I see three trends that may help Canadian crime fiction to achieve better traction with American readers.

The first is that there is at present quite an interest in the United States in settings other than America. The popularity of Scandinavian fiction in recent years is evidence of this, as is the interest in Italian-set fiction, such as that of Donna Leon, or Scottish fiction, like that of Ian Rankin.

The second is that when readers of crime, mystery, or detective fiction congregate (whether on such lists or through blogs or the like, or at the huge mystery conferences that take place in the United States and Britain these days), it is evident that subgenres and specialties all have their fans and those readers are very interested in extending their outreach to novels in English from all over the world. I am thinking of those interested in village mysteries (like those of Louise Penny), or police procedurals (like those of Giles Blunt and Peter Robinson), or noirs (like the cross-border novels of Howard Shrier), or gay crime fiction (such as that of Anthony Bidulka). Just this week there was a request by someone on Dorothy-L for the names of crime novels featuring rivers, and writers from Canada, like Barbara Fradkin, were able to mention their own novels, involving settings on Canadian rivers, as examples that this reader might want to access.

And this is my third point: More and more readers are relying on social media for information about writers who might fulfill their personal interest criteria when it comes to crime fiction. I am interested in police procedurals that are serial, with continuing characters whose families and relationships evolve over time. I have read Canadian writers of this stripe, such as Peter Robinson. But thanks to electronic lists, blogs, online reviews, and Twitter feeds I have discovered and read my way through writers like Donna Leon (Venice), Deborah Crombie (American but sets her novels in London), and Susan Hill (England). For American writers, this kind of online connectedness will lead to the discovery of many excellent Canadian writers whose works conform to their preferences. Some readers, I know, read mainly for place. When traveling or for other reasons, they like to read mysteries reflecting that travel destination. One of the reasons why we were determined to make our Canadian crime novels lists on our CrimeFictionCanada Web site searchable by keyword is so that “place readers” can find novels set in spots they are interested in--whether in Canada or elsewhere (since Canadian crime writers do not set their work only in Canada).

In completing this point about social media, I want to note also how many Canadian writers are tweeting and “following” all over the ’Net these days, and participating in discussion lists of various kinds. They are getting their own word out in broader ways than any (even the most expensive) literary tour could manage to do.

JKP: Is there something about the type of story Canadian crime novelists are prone to tell that American readers don’t respond to?

MR: I’m not sure whether there is anything all that different about Canadian crime writing in terms of story “types” than is found elsewhere. We have feminist fiction, gay fiction, aboriginal fiction, small-town fiction, big-city fiction, and so on. Some of the themes might have slightly less pull for American writers--or American readers might assume, at least, that what they see as a categorically liberal nation to the north will produce something “softer” than the kind of writing they are used to. One of the examples of this actually being the case is the so-called soft-boiled crime fiction of Howard Engel, whose detective, Benny Cooperman, is the antithesis of gun-toting hard-boiled American P.I.s. Engel goes in for humor as much as noir thrills. However, for the most part, the characters you meet in Canadian crime fiction live in somewhat different settings, and cultural details vary, especially from region to region. But this ought to be a plus rather than a negative for American readers. Who doesn’t want to learn about new places and mores when reading? (It certainly works for Scandinavian writers, these days.)

So I think it is more a matter of many American readers simply not knowing the richness of crime writing that exists “up here.” Awareness is all. And that is why the proliferation of information via social media and other electronic means is so important. (As is our book, I hope--the first full-length book on Canadian crime writing ever.)

JKP: Is part of the reason Americans aren’t exposed to more Canadian crime fiction that U.S. publishers are reticent to take on Canadian crime writers, or that the writers themselves aren’t trying hard enough to break into the American market?

MR: I don’t know enough about the American publishing market to answer this. I think U.S. publishers respond to proven U.S. demand. There probably hasn’t been enough of demand for Canadian-produced crime fiction demonstrated in the past, but that may change. Electronic media have a way of erasing national boundaries in ways that hard-copy publishers would have difficulty managing. It is as if reading is beginning to evolve into “literature without borders.”

As for Canadian writers, I see quite a few cropping up on own Twitter account, which has been in existence only a very short time (#detectingcanada), so I know that a number of them are working hard to keep their names and works in the forefront. I also see these writers actively participating in Listservs and responding to blogs both national and international, wherever detective fiction readers congregate. We have to remember that writers only have so much time to self-promote: in a sense, their careers are only as strong as the sales of their next book, and they have to have writing time and the free time that feeds the creative juices in order to keep up their momentum. They have only so much touring time and self-promotion-on-the-Web time. I have a hard time seeing the writers are being responsible for their own lack of profile, if they are not prominent enough. And on the publishers’ side, it doesn’t help that publishing budgets are continually shrinking, which has an obvious effect on how much promotion they can do.

JKP: Finally, if you had to name the five (or more) authors you think best represent the quality of modern Canadian crime-fiction writing, who would they be?

MR: Among the best, in my view, are:

Peter Robinson, Canadian though Yorkshire-born, [who] sets his police procedurals in fictional Yorkshire Dales. His Inspector [Alan] Banks is an appealing, evolving character and the stories are intelligent and very well-written--cracking good mysteries, full of local detail, which have been used as the basis for a successful television series in Britain, now into its second season.

Maureen Jennings, whose police procedurals are set in Toronto in the late 1880s, before the era of modern scientific police forces. Her detective, William Murdoch, struggles with his Catholic background in Protestant Toronto and also with a police force skeptical of his interest in the newly created sciences of fingerprinting and ballistics. The seven Murdoch novels have been adapted not only as made-for-TV movies but also as a popular Canadian television series, Murdoch Mysteries (2008-present).

Louise Penny, whose charming mysteries are set in “Three Pines” in the Eastern Townships in Quebec, featuring Inspector Chief Inspector [Armand] Gamache. The Beautiful Mystery has received wonderful reviews in Canada and the United States, but really all of her novels are marked by great elegance and intelligence as well as by considerable empathy for human complexity and the human condition.

Giles Blunt, who spent some years as a film writer in New York City, I believe, and whose experience with dramatic and visual representation spills over into his novels. His John Cardinal novels are set in Algonquin Bay, which is very similar to North Bay, Ontario, where he grew up. His police procedurals that take on a number of contemporary political issues. The first Cardinal novel, Forty Words for Sorrow, won the British Crime Writers’ Silver Dagger Award, and the second, The Delicate Storm, won the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. He has been twice longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award.

Barbara Fradkin is a retired psychologist and multiple award-winning mystery author whose Inspector [Michael] Green novels are compelling. The Ottawa Citizen once said that “Fradkin’s forte is the emotional cost of crime” and I think that this captures something of her appeal and her excellence.

READ MORE: Canada’s Crime Novelists: Making a Killing,” by Greg Quill (Toronto Star).

1 comment:

Kristopher said...

Another great interview! And the book sounds like a MUST BUY.

I think that one of the barriers to Canadian fiction spreading has been availability. Like with the UK, before The Book Depository, it was sometimes hard for Americans to get their hands on these books.

That is why attending conferences where ones books can be sold can be so successful. I have discovered many authors, Canadian and otherwise via the Book Room at Bouchercon and Malice Domestic.

And certainly, these authors should reach out to bloggers in the US. Being one myself, I know that we are always looking for "new" and "fresh" content to cover.