I was so saddened to learn of the passing of Canadian Mystery author Lou Allin. Lou was funny and witty and generous in her support to the entire mystery community. She will be missed. This article by Lou Allin appeared in the recent issue of Mystery Readers Journal: Canadian Mysteries.
North of the 49th, we “don’t get no respect.” Aside from legends like Louise Penny, Giles Blunt, and Linwood Barclay, most crime-writing Canucks fight an uphill battle, a maple-leaf mouse sleeping with a stars-and-stripes elephant.
Knowing this, why in the world in 1995 did I set my books in Northern Ontario? Easy answer. I lived there, and landscape defines the characters.
Blame my late start on Ohio, where I lived from age 3 to 32, the ho-hum urban settings of Cleveland and Columbus, then grad school in Athens and a dismal year in poverty-stricken Portsmouth. No inspiration. I was a bush woman-in-waiting.
Then in 1977 I moved to a natural paradise. Canadians would laugh at that description, because the Nickel Capital around Sudbury was notorious as one gigantic pollution pit. Over a century of ruthless logging, then the discovery of nickel, led to open-air smelting and acid rain. The area had a black-rock moonscape the size of Manhattan. Astronauts trained there.
Just before I arrived, the International Nickel Company (Mother INCO) built the Superstack. Whether it wafted the particulate clouds to North Bay or actually “scrubbed” them remains another mystery, but a thirty-year regreening campaign began in earnest. Business, government, and citizens trundling over that bleak core area the size of Manhattan spread “rye on the rocks,” grass seeds and nutrients along with hardy pines. Lake pH balances were restored, and the area turned green again.
Living forty-five minutes north on a glorious sixty-four-square-mile meteor crater lake with massive oaks and maples and wilderness, I had a different perspective, tramping personal footpaths for the next twenty years. Crown land extended from my cozy cottage for hundreds of kilometres in three directions. With no television, only skis, boots, snowshoes, snowmobiles, and canoes, I learned the landscape fast. I had to. Amoral nature took no prisoners.
I studied birds, beasts, flora and fauna, geology, history, and even bought topo maps for final tweaks. God forbid a stream or hill might be in the wrong place. If only a rail line ran to Thor Lake, so be it.
I judged the winter temperature by inhaling. Icy nostrils said -20C. Coughing meant -30C, and I even saw -45C….NOT including wind chill. The frozen lake was a motion picture, whether highlighting a wolf pack at dawn, or carrying a truck convoy in late March. Ice-hut villages puffing smoke and the rainbow of Northern Lights would have pleased Brueghel.
Tired of reading bad paperback mysteries every weekend, I wrote Northern Winters are Murder in 2000. That was followed by Blackflies are Murder, Bush Poodles are Murder (I got a pup), Murder, Eh?, and appropriately as I left, Memories are Murder. The themes were universal yet Canadian. Mining pollution, residential school abuse, bear hunting and marten trapping. They starred Belle Palmer, a realtor familiar with the outback.
My series was an ongoing love letter to a generous community which had embraced me. The local tourist board sold my books. I had a solid reader base at the college where I taught.
Then I moved to Vancouver Island. Time and place for a new series. Instead of my middle-aged realtor, getting old for life-threatening chases, I chose a young RMCP Sergeant in a small coastal detachment. When I arrived with fifty pages completed, I found out that she couldn’t be a sergeant because the staff was too small. Enter Corporal Holly Martin. Nor could she be officially a detective, but she could look at suspicious or cold cases.
Weary of are Murder titles and a frustrated English PhD, I chose lines from Victorian poems. Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti:
And on the Surface Die
She Felt No Pain
Twilight is not Good for Maidens
Coming up will be Honour Thy Parents (Clough) and Convergence of the Twain (Hardy).
Thirty-five years past her age, I’m getting used to young Holly, not as sure of herself as worldly-wise, tongue-in-cheek Belle Palmer. Holly lives with her professorial father, who teaches Popular Culture. Norman Martin has a border-collie rescue, a frugal Smart Car and is into dog agility like much of the island. Holly works aside an older woman corporal, a prickly but wise foil, and a young handsome Sikh officer rookie.
I relearned my landscape. 8C is not -40C. Any rare snow on the coast turns to rain. And damp? I’m colder here than in Sudbury, where I had an R 2000 house and long burning oak and maple instead of crummy fir which goes to bed at nine pm. Holly’s house is also only 2X4 instead of 2X6, even though it looks like a Greek villa. Once it had a banana plant, and horticulturists swear that lemons can be grown here.
There are no foxes on the island, nor skunks, nor moose, not even one chipmunk. But lots of deer, bear, elk (farther north), and cougars. Blue herons surf the kelp beds, and bald eagles whistle. River and sea otters run across roads, and barking sea lions camp on the beach, waking us at four a.m.
But “my” trails are gone. The forest companies own or lease most of the land down south and are intent on fueling the Chinese and Japanese appetites. They’ve closed most mills, shipping raw logs. Loaded trucks pass me on this coastal road, sometimes one every FIVE minutes. When they overturn, it’s pick-up-sticks. At least the companies plant to erect a wind farm on the “Easter Island” hills they’ve despoiled. They are pairing with one of Canada’s greatest First Nations successes, the T’sou-ke tribe, totally solar-powered and a national inspiration.
What’s new? Banana slugs in three varieties, few if any mosquitoes in the salt air. Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, hemlock, alder, and bigleaf maple have replaced the Boreal hardwoods. Fall’s palate is not as brilliant, but rhodos bloom in March and I see daffodils peeking up Feb. 8.
The land is a banquet with the richest selection of berries on the continent, due to the long growing season and rare frost. Salmonberries, salal, two huckleberry varieties, creeping blackberries, Himalayan blackberries, wild strawberries.
No poison ivy. But invasives like scotch broom, English ivy, and gorse, all brought by homesick Scottish founders. Huge cow parsnips and colourful yellow skunk cabbage begin the parade, followed by edible tubers from the blue camas and chocolate lily. Fungi like chanterelles accompany exotic candysticks and gnome plants.
The sea adds its bounty. Halibut and salmon, each creek marked as “our resource”. Clams, oysters, whelks, shrimp, and octopus. Some seaweed is edible, and the larger bull kelp is made into baskets. Add an abundance of deer and see why our First Nations ate better than most of their eastern relatives.
We’re bound not by distance but by water. Ferries are expensive, a driver and car paying $165 for a round trip to Vancouver. RVs? If you have to ask…. We can see our US neighbours across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, another living water portrait. Behind their shores loom the mighty Olympic Mountains with Little Egypt, a secretive pyramidal peak. The fog toys with us as mounds of whipped cream on one side roll to the other. And freighters, timber ships, oil tankers, and seasonal cruise ships ply the waters. So do the whales, which on a clear day I can see from my bedroom window.
It may rain eternally, but you can “go to the snow,” all twenty feet of it in the hinterland heights. I’ve snowshoed in June to see the avalanche lilies.
With this exotic atmosphere, we should be in the best-selling ranks like the Scandinavians. Take this Icelandic book selection:
“Before going downstairs he telephoned Sigurdur Oli and told him to go with Elinborg to Hafnarfjordur to take Gudlaugur's for questioning.”
You are NOT in Kananaskis anymore, Dorothy. If you think that’s hard to read, you should have heard me pronouncing those names even after consulting with a scholar in Reykjavik. Boiling smoked lamb for holidays. Crawfish Parties. Icelandic details keep the pages turning.
We are not the USA North. We have our own personality and our own plastic money and shiny bi-metal coins and motto: Peace, Order, and Good Government. Two out of three isn’t bad.
Let’s tell the world and use more multicultural names like Etienne, Pierre, Telesphore, Chirakumar, Jorma, Cholmondley, Colin, Siobhan, and Wilfred.
How about places like Dildo, Quispamsis, Ecum Secum, St. Louis de Ha Ha, Buzwah, Wawa, Pickle Lake, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw, Climax, and Spuzzum?
Platter up our foods: poutine, cod tongue, jellied moose nose, scrunchins, candied salmon.
And while we might not have many handguns, what about bug spray, Bobex deer repellent, Inuit sculptures, and chainsaws?
There might even be a birchbark scroll with a Papal plot involving the Jesuits.
Canada is as criminous as any other country. We have to stop being so gol-darned polite about it.
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