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.

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