THE DELICATE STORM by Giles Blunt (Seal), 393 pages, $10.99 paper. Rating: NNNN LAMENT FOR A LOUNGE LIZARD by Mary Jane Maffini, 270 pages, $13.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNN
It's mystery time - sun, sand, a lounge chair - and what says summer reading quite like a quickie crime story? It's also the eve of the Arthur Ellis Awards honouring the best Canadian crime writing (see Readings, this page), and these two nominees for best fiction give us a good sense of what defines a Canadian mystery and what's on the minds of its best authors.
Sense of place, of course, is high on the agenda. Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm is set in small-town Ontario, Algonquin Bay to be exact, where John Cardinal is trying to figure out why an American tourist has been killed and fed to the bears.
Fiona Silk, Mary Jane Maffini's heroine in Lament For A Lounge Lizard, lives in the picturesque tourist village of St. Aubaine, Quebec, and while she's a romance novelist by trade, she doesn't mind digging into a murder case now and then. She has a big stake in this one; she's awakened to find an ex-boyfriend dead in her bed.
In Blunt's book, Cardinal's investigation leads him to the inner sanctum of the FLQ and to the infamous kidnappings of James Cross and Pierre Laporte (whose names are changed so Blunt can take some literary licence with the story). Only in Canada? Definitely. No writer from any other country would choose this story.
Where Maffini takes much more pleasure in her characters than in the forensic details, Blunt's more into detail and research. That applies to both Quebec's politics and the particulars of a powerful ice storm that devastates Algonquin Bay and plays an important role in the narrative.
Blunt's also, well, blunt about his politics, with especially pointed comments about the evisceration of the health care system by a cold-blooded premier, an obvious stand-in for Mike Harris.
Maffini rips into the literary establishment, in this case those who administer the Flambeau Prize for poetry. After a hiatus of a few years from giving out the award, it's been bestowed upon the murder victim, a poet whose meagre talents couldn't possibly have produced the award-winning book. How stupid could the panel have been?
The characters are Lament For A Lounge Lizard's strength: Josey, the 14-year-old entrepreneur who'll do any household chore but doesn't really have a home of her own, Fiona's friend Liz, who never met a bottle of booze she didn't want to suck on, and asshole cop Sarrazin, who doesn't really care about evidence indicating that Fiona's in real danger.
But there are some plot glitches. Fiona's new friends have information they share way late and not in a way that increases the suspense. And how is it possible that in a 2,000-person town like St. Aubaine, Fiona doesn't know anything about - has never even met - the dishy poet-cum-car-mechanic who turns her on so completely?
Blunt does get you involved with his characters, too. In fact, Cardinal's relationship with his aging father has real emotional heft.
Which is the main difference between the two books. Maffini's given us a fun, easy read; Blunt takes what he's doing much more seriously. Setting and politics put Canadian crime writing on the map