Lecture: The Detective Story in Canada

Wednesday Dec 03 2008

Canadian Crime Fiction


One of the things that really interests me is the problem of the Canadian literary canon for the detective story/mystery/thriller -- I don't want to get bogged down in the whole literary movement of semiotics, which has called into question many of the old standards of criticism upon which the traditional canons were based.  But traditional canons are under attack.  Curiously enough, there is no need to revise the canon for the Canadian thriller, since there really is not one; the genre is seen as too recent to have developed such a thing.  The Canadian literary canon does have a problem with the thriller, in that it does not recognize the genre as a legitimate one for important writing, but that is not the question I wish to address here tonight. 

For some cultures, including that of Canada, there is a drive to escape the colonial assumptions of the past.  Those colonial assumptions operated within Eurocentrism rather than without it, and produced a reaction which may well have been counterproductive in terms of the other pressures previously mentioned.  The canonical intricacies of Canadian detective fiction offer an excellent illustration of the historical problems and processes of colonialism at work.

Since there is precious little corpus of serious scholarship on the literary history of Canadian mystery fiction, it is per¬haps a bit dangerous to generalize about ignorance and neglect.  Nevertheless, it appears to be the case that Canadian scholarship, insofar as it has considered the problem, has a view of the detective genre in Canada as one of relatively recent origin, dating perhaps from the mid-1960s, when John Norman Harris wrote THE WEIRD WORLD OF WES BEATTIE.  In any event, no more than a handful of aficionados would be prepared to argue that the genre has a long and complicated -- if largely invisible -- history, dating back to the turn of the century and the first great period of international canonical development.  The historical invisibility of the Canadian thriller before the 1960s is a complex product of a colonized culture.

Part of the problem is that Canadians have allowed their early cultural progenitors to be appropriated by the other cultures -- notably British and American -- to which those individuals have been inevitably attracted.  Thus only the most ardent of Canadian trivia-ists is aware of the extent to which early Hollywood was a Canadian invention.  Nevertheless, the three major studios of the 1920s were all headed by Canadians: Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack Warner at Warner Brothers, and Mary Pickford at United Artists.  In a similar kind of way, most of the earlier generations of Canadian thriller writers have disappeared into the maw of American and British cultural history.  In the British tradition can be found such Canadian talent as Grant Allen, who created a wonderful rogue in the person of Colonel Cuthbert Clay [AN AFRICAN MILLIONAIRE; EPISODES IN THE LIFE OF THE ILLUSTRIOUS COLONEL CLAY (1897)], and Robert Barr, who invented a brilliant if somewhat eccentric French detective named Eugene Valmont [THE TRIUMPHS OF EUGENE VALMONT (1906)] several decades ahead of Hercule Poirot and left at his death an unfinished thriller completed by his friend Conan Doyle.   

On the American side we have writers like Frank L. Packard, creator of Jimmy Dale [THE ADVENTURES OF JIMMY DALE, DETECTIVE (1917); Arthur Stringer, whose THE WIRE TAPPERS (1906) began a long series of crime fiction, including the movie serial "The Iron Claw" starring Pearl White; Vincent Starrett, born in Toron¬to into a bookselling family and the producer of the detective Jimmie Lavender (THE CASEBOOK OF JIMMIE LAVENDER (1944); and Leslie McFarlane, creator of Dave Fearless [DAVE FEARLESS UNDER THE OCEAN (1926)], the Hardy Boys under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon [THE TOWER TREASURE (1927)] and the Dana Girls under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene [IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWER (1934)].  The silent appropriation of the Hardy Boys into American culture is unforgiveable enough, but the Americans have also taken over two major Canadian figures of the middle period of the 1930s and 1940s: Margaret Millar and her husband Kenneth Millar (who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald).  One possible justification for taking over Ross Macdonald is that the sleazy California his characters inhabit has no Canadian equivalent.  But Margaret Millar (described on the dustjacket of several recent paperback reissues as "America's finest living crime writer" and "America's Queen of Crime" is a slightly more difficult job.  Both these reissues are set in Toronto, and the description of the victim in AN AIR THAT KILLS (1957) could hardly be less that of your typi¬cal American:  "He fished, played golf and cricket in the sum¬mers, curled at the Granite Club in the winters, wore a crew cut, and drove his Cadillac convertible with the top down even in weather which forced him to turn the heater on full blast to keep from freezing to death." 
With the exceptions of Stringer and Millar, most of these writers made little effort to cultivate anything resembling Canadian content, although the Hardy Boys' "Bay City" could just as easily have been an Ontario lake community as one located in Michigan.  Indeed, before the 1960s some of the best-realized Canadian detectives were created by writers who had very little connection with the country.  "November Joe", for example, was the sleuth invented by the English writer H. Hesketh Prichard. [NOVEMBER JOE: THE DETECTIVE OF THE BACKWOODS (1913).]  Joe was a mixed blood guide -- or perhaps full-blood Indian, the author was never entirely clear -- who inhabited the backwoods of Quebec  Joe.  He was a combination of Fenimore Cooper's Indian scout and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, able to read the actions and behaviour of people from the smallest telltale sign of footprint and disturbed moss on a treetrunk, and an untutored genius at the psychology of the human condition.  There is nothing patronizing about November Joe, and one might have expected to see a Que¬bec-based Native detective revived.  But for reasons we shall explore in a few moments, Joe's creator failed a basic test of Canadian-ness.  So too did Elspeth Huxley, who gave us in MURDER AT GOVERNMENT HOUSE (1937) the character of Inspect Vachell, who had rattled around the United States, worked for the Mounties, and then gone off to the Empire, first as a member of the Indian C.I.D. in Delhi and then as head of the C.I.D. in the mythical African nation of Chania. 
The enemy to Canadian recognition, of course, has not simply been the expropriating tendencies of other cultures, but the defensive reaction of Canadians themselves to that oh so unwit¬ting but nonetheless unremitting expropriation.  The result has been what can be called the "CanStud" assumptions fundamental to the formation of the present Canadian literary canon.  These assumptions have been applied to the literary subgenres such as detective fiction and science fiction, and their application to the thriller genre helps account for the great historical hole before the 1960s.  Put simply, CanStud assumes three criteria for genuine Canadian-ness: (1) some sort of conscious commitment to Canadian residence at some point in one's career; (2)  preten¬sions to heavy-duty style in an acceptable international critical context; no lightweight trendy pop stars need apply; (3) Substan¬tial Canadian content, in terms of settings, characters, and themes.  It is probably not necessary to meet all three of these standards simultaneously.  Any two will do.  One of the three standards is not sufficient, however, as the slow acceptance of Mavis Gallant (Canadian-born, resident abroad for most of her life, writing about expatriate Paris) demonstrates.  Not until her return to Canada for extended residences did she become acceptable.  In short, the Canadian response to colonialism has been a different version of colonialism.  Let me look at each of these three standards in turn, and on their effect on the thrill¬er canon.
Nothing  do Canadians hate more than other Canadians who have left the country to become successful, although they do not necessarily revere those who remain at home, often regarding them as automatically inferior.  It is again a classic colonized mentality.  In any case, the CanStud standards have always in effect collaborated with those abroad who have co-opted Canadian artists for their own national cultures, presumably on the grounds that artists should be able to decide their own nationality.  The questions of nationality, residence, and national commitment are of course fraught with inconsistencies for any country like Canada, with its colonial status until 1867 and its enormous intake of immigrants ever since.  Speaking as a cultural historian, I would emphasize the futility of restrictive criteria.  What would we make of the fact, for example, that the only individual ever executed for treason by the Canadian government -- Louis Riel -- was formally an American citizen?  At the same time, the peripatetic careers of many of Canada's writers of detective fiction  help account for their neglect.

To look quickly at the first generation of thriller writers previously mentioned: Grant Allen (1849-99) was born in Kingston, Upper Canada, but was educated in France and England and lived his entire adult life in the West Indies and England; Robert Barr (1850-1912) was born in Glasgow, emigrated with his family to Canada, removed to Detroit as a journalist, and moved to London in the early 1880s; Arthur Stringer (1874-1950) was born in Chatham, Ontario, educated in Canada, and eventually moved to New York as a journalist and writer, although he maintained a farm on the north shore of Lake Erie from 1903 to 1921; Vincent Starrett was born in Toronto, but by his own account, "from approximately my fourth to fourteenth years, I practically commuted between Chicago and Toronto, and the fact is that some of my memories of the two cities are inextricably mixed", thereafter becoming wholly American.  [Starrett, BORN IN A BOOKSHOP (Norman, 1965), p. 17.] Hesketh Prichard rattled about the Empire like Inspector Vachell, spending very little time in Canada.  Many of Canada's current crop of practitioners have equally complex backgrounds: Eric Wright is English-born, as are Peter Robinson, Sara Woods, and Anthony Quogan.   Shaun Herron and John Brady are Irish-born, emigrating to Canada at relatively advanced ages.  John Reeves was born in British Columbia, but spent his pre-adult years in England.  Ellen Godfrey and Carol Shields are American-born and educated, as is Norah Kelly, who has a Canadian Ph.D. (in history!) and set her first thriller in the English Cambridge University.  Joseph Skvorecky was born in Czechoslovakia, and writes about Lieutenant Boruba in Czech, not exactly one of Canada's official languages, although one in which we have one of the most active presses anywhere in the world.
If peripatetic biographies have told against many of Canada's detective story writers, so too has the very genre, out there at the marginal edge of popular fiction.  All cultural fields have always had a good deal of trouble with the serious/popular dichotomy, particularly in the establishment of their canons of repertoire, and as I already stated, it is not my intention to explore this subject in this brief presentation.  But it is worth emphasizing that the problem takes on even further dimensions of complexity for a colonial culture like that possessed by Canada.  Not only are popular artists downgraded by the CanStud critics for their sheer public acceptance, which means that somehow they can't be any good, but they are also dismissed because virtually the only way to achieve broad popular acclaim is to "sell out" to the international market and media.  The process of "selling out," of course, can be devastating for the artist, as Lucy Maud Montgomery with Anne of Green Gables and Leslie McFarlane with The Tower Treasure discovered, surrendering their copyrights to eventual best-selling titles for a mere pittance, both to nasty American publishers, P. K. Page and Grosset & Dunlop.  But good old Ralph Connor, a prolific best-selling Canadian writer (of indisputable Canadian creden¬tials) has never had as much serious critical recognition as his contemporary stature would seem to warrant.  Connor, of course, was another contributor to the early Canadian detective genre, producing, particularly in CORPORAL CAMERON (1912), the prototypical fictional Mountie.   More than any other single writer, Connor created the Mountie who achieved mythological status in the fiction and film of the period 1910-1940.  Connor, who sold more than 5 million copies of his books in the United States alone between 1900 and 1940, has been neglected by the CanStud industry in favour of a number of one-novel wonders whose pretensions fit better into the quest for a substantial national culture.  It had better be said that if one applies the critical standards of high international literature to Ralph Connor, he comes up wanting.  What we need, of course, are some different critical standards.
The final obstacle for a Canadian writer to overcome is the CanStud insistence on Canadian content or Canadian influence.  This requirement has been particularly hard on the first generation of Canadian thriller writers, most of whom wrote from abroad and set their scenes outside Canada.  Thus writes one critic of Grant Allen's considerable body of work, "it had no significant effect on Canadian literature and very little of it reflects his Canadian origins."   [Oxford Companion, p. 9.]  While this presentation is not the place to discuss the critical hang ups of Canadian Literature and Canadian Studies in their ongoing quests for Significant Canadian Content, I would make two points.  One is that given the quietly dismissive attitude of most of the CanStud critics toward detective fiction, presumably because of its absence of high moral purpose, it would seem to me particularly hard cheese also to apply the restrictive standards of Can Culture to the canon of works included in Canadian detective fiction, when that canon is finally developed in detail.  I would therefore argue for a completely open set of criteria for inclu¬sion in the Canadian canon.  Writers should be included if they have had any connection with Canada, however brief, and works can be considered regardless of whether they have explicit Canadian content.  As we shall see, even among the more self-consciously Canadian of the recent generation of practitioners, content can be a tricky business.

Having called for all-inclusiveness, we then move on to our second point about the problem of Canadian detective fiction, which has always fascinated those who have examined the matter: the question of setting. Until the 1960s probably more detective novels were set in Canada by non-Canadian than by Canadian writers.  The usual explanation for this neglect of the Canadian landscape is that most Canadian writers have felt that  Canada was not a place of much interest to much of the remainder of the world.   An alternate is that suggested by John Metcalf, whose poet-narrator in the novel GENERAL LUDD remarks:

After much mental struggle, I'd been forced to admit     that writing a thriller set in Canada verged on the     impossible.  Impossible because nobody knows what a     Canadian is.  We're invisible to ourselves and     to the larger world because we have no stereotypes.

Both explanations, particularly in tandem, have much to recommend them. 

Since the 1960s a fair number of thrillers, many of them involving series characters rather than simply one-off efforts, have been published with Canadian settings.  The typical Canadian-made thriller of the post-1970 period has had an identifiable Canadian setting, albeit often in a generalized and North Americanized Canada, rather than a foreign location.  The change reflects both the realization of the writers that exotic (or at least unfamiliar) locations well described are one way to find new territory, and a certain degree of Canadian maturity.  Nevertheless, some of our best practitioners of the detective/thriller genre still write as if Canada never existed, an approach that is quite reasonable. Sara Woods, for example, has written over 20 books featuring English barrister Anthony Maitland, usually detecting in the London world of high finance and established families and operating in the English court milieu.  Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks  has his patch in the Yorkshire Dales.  John Brady's series character is Garda sergeant Matt Minogue, who works out of a beautifully-realized contemporary Dublin.  John Lawrence Reynold's Joe McGuire operates from Boston.   Joseph Skvorecky's Lieutenant Boruvka solves his crimes in a Commmunist-controlled Prague.   Canadian libraries have taken to putting maple leafs on the dust jackets of Canadian authors, and without these symbols or some biographical informa¬tion on the authors, even a sensitized reader often couldn't tell the difference.  Woods et al., however, are no longer typical Canadian toilers in the genre.
But if the Canadian thriller since the 70s and 80s has acquired a Canadian setting, it has still not exploited the rich geographical possibilities for unusual locales.  A disproportionate number of the more critically-esteemed works, especially those in series, have been set in Toronto.  Margaret Millar's Canadian location was invariably Toronto.  John Norman Harris's two brilliant works featuring lawyer Sydney "Gargoyle" Grant and his girl-friend/wife June Beattie (THE WEIRD WORLD OF WES BEATTIE (1963) and HAIR OF THE DOG (written 1963 but published only in 1990) both were located in upper-middle class Toronto.   Hugh Garner's pioneering police procedurals, featuring Detective Inspector Walter McDumont, relied heavily on their Toronto atmosphere -- the seediness of Cabbagetown (one of the few genuinely WASP slums in North America) or the aridness of Don Mills (home, one might add, of many of Canada's publishers).  John Reeves' tandem team of Inspector Coggin and Sergeant Sump work for the Toronto Police Department, although in fairness to Reeves his working settings are both more local and more traditionally closed (CBC national headquarters, a monastery housing both men and women, an opera company).  Eric Wright's Charlie Salter works for the Toronto Police Department as well, although he has travelled to Montreal, Winnipeg, and PEI in the course of his investigations.  The quirky private detective J.K.G. Santorro created by Simon Ritchie -- with his left arm prosthesis, his love of music (both classical and jazz), and his affluence -- operates out of Toronto, as does Inspector John Sanders and amateur photographer Harriet Jeffries in the series by Medora Sale.  Management consultant Jane Tregar, the character of Ellen Godfrey, is another Toronto-based amateur sleuth.  Often associated with Toronto, of course, is the Muskoka Lake District, where well-off Torontonians play in the summer, and the cottage country does enter into many of these novels. What the reader is to make of the Toronto and environs of these works is a matter to which we will return. 

For the moment, it suffices to emphasize that no other place in Canada has received the attention of Toronto, probably because it is home-base for many of the nation's freelance and academic writers as well as its publishers.   Despite its rich potential, virtually the only series set in Montreal are Maurice Gagnon's "Deirdre O'Hara Files" featuring that female lawyer who specializes in marine insurance cases, and Monique Lepage's Joseph-Aime-Onesme Gagnon, a francophone journalist.  Lepage has not to my knowledge been translated into English.  Like her author, O'Hara is bilingual and bicultural, her cases usually involving Anglos and her police buddies usually from the French-Canadian world of Quebec law enforcement.  Chrystine Brouillet's police officer Maud Graham works out of Quebec City.  Vancouver is the home of Laurence Gough's Jack Willows and Claire Parker, a brittle backdrop for police procedurals so hard-boiled that all you need add is mayonnaise to get egg salad.  Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman operates out of "Grantham", really based on St. Catherine's, Ontario, in the Niagara Peninsula.  Anthony Quogan's Matthew Prior solved a really nasty murder at Wacousta University, a smaller and new Canadian university about an hour's drive outside Toronto in Mapleville, a town described as "a curious mixture of English Victorian suburb and American Mid-West small town."  L. R. Wright's Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg works for the RCMP out of Sechelt, a small town on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, otherwise distinguished only as the setting for Canada's longest-running "dramatic" television series, the "Beachcombers." Knowing Wright's Sechelt, I don't find it very well realized or interesting; it strikes me more as a generic northern California.   Gail Bowen/s Joanna Kilbourne lives and detects in Saskatchewan. 

A much neglected place in Canadian thriller fiction is Canada's historical past.  The emergence of historical thrillers are one of the major success stories of the 1990s, but with the exception of Allan Levine, who has written three thrillers about Sam Klein in the Winnipeg in the earlier years of the 20th century, but to my knowledge no other fictional Canadian detective currently prowls the rich historical fabric of Canada.     

Despite the fascination of earlier writers (and the Silver Screen) with the RCMP, Sergeant Alberg is one of the few Mounties currently plying his trade between the pages of Canadian thrillers.  Part of the reason for this curious neglect is jurisdictional.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a certain national police role as a combination CIA-FBI, but virtually every city in Canada has its own police force, and the Mounties do their actual policing mainly in rural Canada, which is a virtual no-man's land as far as Canadian thriller writing is concerned.  What effect the sale of the Mountie copyright to Walt Disney will have is not known to me.    Charlie Salter's forays away from Toronto, particularly to Winnipeg and Prince Edward Island, demonstrate how much new territory there is to explore.
In short, there is a good deal of Canada, both urban and rural, that still has not been utilized as unusual background and exploited for thematic purposes.  The whole French-English business, except in a handful of overtly political thrillers, remains underdone.  Ottawa, which is not exactly Washington but has its own fascination as the site of a very bourgeoise bureaucracy, joins Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Halifax as major Canadian cities not currently featured in Canadian detective series.  The rich folk cultures of Atlantic Canada, including that of Newfoundland, have been utilized only by Alisa Craig (aka Charlotte MacLeod) whose best works have an American setting but who also locates her tales in small-town New Brunswick, where she has used an RCMP officer, Detective Inspector Madoc Rhys, as her sleuth.   I personally find Craig a bit precious and hokey. Some of the potential for violence in the rural communities of Canada has been suggested by Canadian novelists who do not write in the detective genre, such as David Adams Richards, Margaret Lawrence, Matt Cohen, and Alice Munro.
Even within the context of urban Toronto, there is much that has not yet really been explored.  If the traditional British "countryhouse" view of violence (exemplified by the five "Queens" of the Golden Age: Marsh, Allingham, Christie, Sayers, and Heyer) is that it intrudes into an otherwise pacific landscape, and the standard American perception (a la Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler) is the totally cynical one of a society in which violence is as normal as apple pie or ice cream, the typical Canadian attitude is to pretend that it "can't happen here"  because we are not a violent people under any circumstances. The opportunities for tension between the realities of modern Canada and its mythologies have been exploited by some of our writers, but seldom within the pages of the detective/thriller genre. 
Perhaps only Hugh Garner, who wrote a series of police procedurals late in his career in a blatant attempt to make some money, really understood the point.  His Inspector Walter McDumont probably reflects Garner's own prejudices, which were to hate with great passion the new problems of modern Toronto, including middle-class hypocrisy, homosexuality, dope, hippies, late 60s/early 70s sexual promiscuity, and immigration.  But the tensions between McDumont's traditional Ontario values left over from the days of "Toronto the Good" and the creeping slime of modern North Americanized commercial society are palpable.  John Reeves wears his Canadian-ness more openly -- only he could write of the "Metric Massacre (in which an enraged democrat, who truly believed that Canada ought to be governed by public parliamentary debate and not by private cabinet fiat, had incinerated twelve members of the Metric Commission, whose average height, he stated, was five feet eight and three-quarter inches and average weight a hundred and sixty three pounds," or describe one of his character's shrugs as having been done "with a kind of petulant cynicism, clearly unaware of the especial repugnance Canadians would have for such a feature after years of exposure to its use by the phony intellectual in Ottawa who liked to masquerade as a world statesman."  A few other authors, particularly Eric Wright and Howard Engle, write about various aspects of the Canadian dilemma.  For most, however, the Canadian meaning of their work is not seriously pursued. 
My principal contention for this evening, of course, is that "Canadian-ness" is not a very suitable criterion or necessary prerequisite for establishing a canon.  At the same time, however, I would observe that while very few authors within the genre have messed with such content, those who have are among the most interesting and readable authors within the canon.   There is a lesson hidden somewhere in this paradox.

J. M. Bumsted                   Whodunit?  Mystery Bookstore, Winnipeg

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