Friday, April 26, 2013

Swap by John McFetridge

The front cover of this novel tells me it is a mystery, but it isn't really. Certainly there is a murder, and there are detectives attempting to solve it, but that is only one of the many threads woven into a very challenging and vivid story of Toronto's underworld.

Full disclosure: when I first started reading this book, I kind of hated it. I guess because the subject matter didn't really interest me - organized crime, bikers, drug dealers, murder and mayhem. Or maybe it was because I was ticked off that it wasn't really a mystery (it's revealed early on who shot the Lowries, and why). But like in Victim Impact, the world of biker gangs proved to be a fascinating backdrop to some compelling human dramas. 

It's hard to give a coherent plot summary, since there are a lot of stories happening - it would be like describing the plot of Love Actually. Basically a young man named Get comes up from Detroit to do some guns-for-drugs trading with the Saints, a biker gang that essentially runs Toronto. He meets J.T., an errand-boy for the gang who is about to be "patched in". Get also meets Sunitha, a young woman who robs fancy spas and sells the gold jewellery to the Saints, and also gives the best hand jobs in the world. They start to get involved.

There's also Richard, who was the second-in-command of the bikers in Montreal and ended up taking over and expanding their operations across Canada. And Big Pete, the intended target of the initial murder. And the cops - there's a lot of them - most notably Detective McKeon, whose post-partum depression is steadily turning into a drinking problem. They all move in and out of each other's lives, bodies pile up, drugs get sold, the wheel turns.

McFetridge has a very compelling, no-nonsense writing style that suits the subject matter perfectly. His characters are very hard, and very real. There is no romance here, but it's not totally depressing, either. It is incisive and somewhat cynical commentary on the forces at work behind the scenes, the fucked up people who really run things; it was especially interesting for me, a great lover of mysteries and police procedurals, to watch the cops flail around, fully a million steps behind the perpetrator of the murder that the author solves for you in the first chapter. And you know that even if they solved it, they couldn't touch the guy.

I finished this book a few days ago and I have been thinking about it off and on every since. I wanted to try to write this review without using the word "gritty" but come on, it's gritty. Toronto itself is a (troubled) character as much as any of the human players, and within the novel Toronto's place in the world as a player is discussed. Get is in shock about the housing prices, the multi-storey grow-ops, the lenient jail terms. This book is not exactly a positive endorsement for Toronto as a tourism destination but it certainly sheds some light on its relationship to American crime worlds. 

This is the sort of book I never thought I would like, but really, I think if it's well-written, a book about anything could be compelling. There is a lot going on here, a lot of stuff to unpack, and I highly recommend it.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grave Doubts by John Moss

Mysteries! I can't get enough of them. For some reason, a disproportionate number of books set in Toronto seem to be mysteries; or perhaps it is proportionate, and the majority of all books are mysteries. Could it be? Anyway, I've got no problem with it, because it is by far my favourite genre.

Grave Doubts is part of a series of books about two Toronto detectives, Quin and Morgan. Unfortunately it is not the first book in the series, so I feel like I'm missing a bit of the backstory, but that didn't really affect my enjoyment of this one to a noticeable degree. The book opens with the discovery of two bodies entombed in the plaster of an old house, wrapped in a lovers' embrace, and missing their heads. It is mostly an ancient curiosity until it is discovered that (mild spoiler alert) the old-time-y clothing and accessories are actually an elaborate ruse, and the bodies (and therefore the murders) are pretty new. Which makes it Quin and Morgan's case.

It's kind of a police procedural, but not really, as most of the action centers on the two detectives in their down time. Quin befriends Rachel Naismith, the police officer on the scene, and the two of them strike up a strange friendship with Alexander Pope, the renovations expert called in to examine the crime scene. Morgan, meanwhile, pursues his attraction to Shelagh Hubbard, the forensic anthropologist who examined the bodies, leading me to wonder if these people meet all their friends/potential romantic partners at crime scenes, and what kind of weird consequences that would have for their lives.

The book takes place mainly in Toronto, although it also explores some unlikely parts of Ontario like Owen Sound, and Penetanguishene. The Toronto scenes name check a lot of landmarks and streets, but don't do a lot to really capture the vibe of the city. This is not the book to read if you want to get a feel for Toronto.

I did enjoy the novel a lot. The author made some interesting choices for a mystery, focusing extensively on relationships and intimacy (and I don't mean sex) and really drawing out the suspense during the climax, which lasts about four chapters. I did appreciate the abrupt ending once the mystery was resolved; I think many mystery writers succumb to the annoying cliche of over-explaining what happened, either through a villain laying out their whole plan to the hero (giving them time to be rescued) or by the hero explaining everything to their partner/police chief/spouse after the fact. Moss seems to recognize that in this particular scenario at least, once the who and the how is resolved, the why is as much speculation on the part of the detectives as it is the readers.

Guys, it's worth checking out, for sure. I really enjoyed the characters, and I would definitely read this author again.

Four CN Towers out of five.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Today in Maps and Canlit

I guess I could tell you about Project Bookmark Canada myself, but I like the way Kate Beaton does it. So go read her explanation, and enjoy a jaunty picture of a lumberjack while you do it.