trade paperback, $17.50
Murder in A-major
Stories show darkness in the heart of town
Can we really understand the words Toronto and Noir together?
Noir, of course, means "black" in French. In film or literature, it's a crime genre, usually involving cynical, hard-bitten characters on both sides of the law in a corrupt environment and delivered in a gritty, no-nonsense style heavy on the shadows and moral ambiguity. We think of stories set in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s, or in any of the many dark days of Chicago and New York City.
But Toronto? Toronto the Good? Today in the era of new-broom politics?
Sure. Why not? For even now in many places of our modern metropolises, subgroups of people are toughened by survival-of-the-fittest conditions to seek out personal benefit at the expense of anyone else who gets in their way.
That must the rationale behind the Noir series produced by Akashic
Books. They've turned out volumes of dark stories taking place in a
score of mainly North American cities. Now they've added Toronto to the
And with the help of some very skilled local writers, they—ve shown Toronto Noir is no oxymoron.
Each story is centred on a distinct neighbourhood in Toronto. Some areas, like Parkdale or Queen West, may be no surprise. But our authors also come up with rattling good and dark yarns from such yuppie hangouts as the Beach, Bloor West Village and the Distillery District.
In fact, three of the best stories come from these sunny locales. Peter Robinson writes in "Walking the Dog" of an afternoon Beaches affair that yields one of the most unexpected (and funniest) murders I've ever read, and then goes on to deliver at least two more surprising twists.
In "A Bout of Regret" Michael Redhill leads the reader by the nose through another affair, this one based on a Distillery barkeeper with a couple of secrets and upon whom the tables are delightfully turned by a cop.
And then there's Andrew Pyper's "Tom" who uses the Bloor West neighbourhood to deliver not a tale of death but one of quiet romantic betrayal.
My favourite story though may be "Sic Transit Gloria at the Humber Loop". Sean Dixon scales down his usually off-the-wall writing style to present a tawdry relationship with a tragic conclusion that catches you off guard — worthy of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In reviewing these four stories I realize that love-gone-horribly-bad is another characteristic feature of the noir genre. Either that, or Toronto is hell on lovers.
Sixteen stories in all. Not all gems, naturally. Maybe two or three duds.
But those are pretty good odds in the dark city.
Bloodless mystery composed for classical era
What is it about Canadian literary figures that they turn to writing mysteries in their middle—or later—age?
Toronto writer Morley Torgov is best known for his popular humorous novels, including A Good Place to Come From and The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, as well as more serious fare like his previous novel, The War to End All Wars. Now into his 80s, he's taking up crime in Murder in A-major.
But not just any crime. A rather classy whodunit, set in 19th-century Germany, in the musical social set of Robert and Clara Schumann, Franz Lizst, and Johannes Brahms.
It's the first published case of Torgov's fictional protagonist, Inspector Hermann Preiss, who hobnobs with the cultural cliques while investigating them. What he's initially looking for, though, is not exactly a solution to a blood-curdling crime. Rather he's trying to figure out why Robert Schumann keeps hearing the titular A note in his head. In the course of this, Preiss is drawn into the artists' affairs and rivalries.
None of which, unfortunately, is very interesting. It's more than halfway through the book before an actual dead body, that of a prominent critic, is discovered. And even then, somehow, this is made to seem less important than Preiss trying to straighten out the state of Robert's sanity, Clara's relations with Brahms, and his own feelings about various women.
Lots of interesting bits can be found about the daily lives of famous composers and performers of the supposedly romantic era. I suspect this is what people who enjoy this novel will focus on.
As for the hardboiled mystery crowd, they'll be left feeling they've just sat through a long, dull and unfinished symphony.
This off-beat crime story runs deep indeed
John Moss is another veteran Canadian writer at long last taking up the quill to spill some blood. But what a difference.
Still Waters is both an assured debut in the mystery category and off-beat in the delightful way only a newbie can be. Off-beat, that is, both literally and figuratively. His heroes are two Toronto detectives Miranda Quin and David Morgan, who start investigating a drowning in a Rosedale fish pond and follow a trail all over the city, with a stop in midtown's Wychwood Park neighbourhood, for example—as well as through much of southern Ontario.
To say these sleuthing partners have a history is an understatement. They'd been lovers, we gradually learn, although we're never really quite sure why it ended—or if it has really. And they both have had lots of experience in the sack, on the floor, and in the grass with others, including, it turns out, with one of the victims.
This is the kind of mystery in which the detectives themselves are intimately involved with the crime, to the point of placing their own lives in jeopardy. Now, I know this sounds like another case of literary flourishes and subplots detracting from the good, clean fun of solving gruesome homicides. Yet it works really well. At first, the cops seem hopelessly self-obsessed and unreal as they swap prolonged personal cracks over dead bodies, but eventually you get drawn into their lives in a way that makes solving the crime even more vital.
If anything, Moss's character-driven writing in Still Waters reminds me of the involving work of the British writer Reginal Hill in the famed Dalziel and Pascoe series. Sure, it's not quite realistic: do we think modern police officers are usually personally connected with their cases? No, but it makes for entrancing fiction—more in tune with serious writing than self-conscious attempts to lift mystery writing into the ranks of Literature with a capital L.
And much more fun.
I really want to know what hot water Quin and Morgan get into on their next case.