Friday, June 26, 2009

More Cool Canadian Crime: Thomas Rendell Curran

Today mystery author David Cole returns with another interview in his Cool Canadian Crime series. Previously, David has interviewed Louise Penny, Barbara Fradkin, and Mary Jane Maffini. These interviews were organized with the assistance of Cheryl Freedman, executive director of Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), and David Cole, a US author and CWC member. The group of 13 authors were chosen by David to represent a variety of mystery genres, styles, and historical periods. Some of the authors have won or been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis award for best mystery novel.

Thomas Rendell Curran was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1939, and it is no coincidence that his mystery novels are set in the post-war, pre-Confederation Newfoundland of the late 1940’s. His protagonist is Inspector Eric Stride of the Newfoundland Constabulary. After receiving a Ph.D, he worked in various capacities for the Canadian Department of Agriculture, and for one memorable year as a lecturer at Carleton University. Thomas Rendell Curran lives in Ottawa, but his roots remain in Newfoundland. His first novel, Undertow, was shortlisted by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

DC: You write historical mysteries, and they're set in Newfoundland. But, first, there’s your name. Any relation to Ruth Rendell?

TRC: Probably not. Ruth Rendell's birth name is 'Grasemann', and I think her family is originally from Scandinavia. My middle name, Rendell, comes from my mother’s family, who originally came to Newfoundland from the Devon-Somerset area of England, back in the 1700s.

My surname, at birth, was Curren, but I changed it ten years ago to Curran, to recapture the original spelling. The name is Irish, and the spelling was changed by my paternal grandmother, back in the 1930s, because she was Methodist, and a religious bigot, and didn't want to be thought of as Roman Catholic. ( I am not making this up!) I will add that the religious strife in Newfoundland is not all that dissimilar from that in Northern Ireland.

I settled on 1947 as the date for my book because Newfoundland was not yet a province of Canada. That happened in 1949, a day that for many Newfoundlanders of my generation will always live in infamy. The three books that I have written (two published, and the third looking for a home) are set in the period two years after the end of WWII, and two years prior to Confederation with Canada. At the time, there was a strong American presence in Newfoundland, as a consequence of WWII, as well as a strong British tradition.

DC: As far as I know, Newfoundland has little or no history of crime fiction. You lived there in your early years, and I assume that’s why you decided to set your books there. Does the fact that Newfoundland is a “place apart” inform your writing to any extent?

TRC: Newfoundland doesn’t have any history of crime fiction that I know of. When my first book, came out, a local reviewer thought a murder mystery set in 1947 St. John's wouldn’t work, because it was a small town and in real life everyone would know at once 'whodunit'. He admitted he was wrong about that, and once he got started on the book, he read it through in one sitting.

I lived in St. John's until I was twenty-two, when I left for Toronto and 
graduate studies. Newfoundland’s being "a place apart" does inform my writing. What I tried to capture in my books is the uniqueness of Newfoundland, the place, and the people. Mind you, I am what anyone from outside St. John's – the capital - would call a "townie". The inference being that the "St. John's crowd" has traditionally made its living from the blood, sweat and tears of the people who live and work outside the city, and that all that is good about the island takes place in the hundreds of small towns and villages strung along the coastline - the "outports". There is truth in that. History records that a small number of extremely wealthy St. John's merchants controlled the island's economy and its politics.

Before WWII, most Newfoundlanders did not live in a cash 
economy, and I use this in my first two books. My protagonist, Eric Stride, is very well-to-do, even though he was born in an outport on the south coast, a place called Bay d’Espoir. In French that means "Bay of Hope", but it’s pronounced "Bay Despair". I love the contradiction. Stride was a rum-runner in his youth and made a lot of money during Prohibition, running booze from the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland's south coast, into the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. He lives in a large Victorian-era house in an area in St. John's known as "Millionaires' Row". So he straddles two worlds.

DC: When I read your first book, Undertow, and having no idea of the size 
of the city St. John's, I somehow got stuck with the idea that it was a 
"village" mystery. But you captured the city so well that I felt at home 
in whatever size "village" it was.

TRC: St. John's would have had a population of around 40,000 in 1947. You're right, it was a lot more than a village, although like a lot of cities, it was a collection of villages. I centred my first book on my old neighbourhood, and made much use of the location, the houses and characters that I was familiar with. In a real sense, the book is a memoir of growing up in St. John’s in the 1940s.

DC: Why the late 1940s? And why a historical period, rather than something contemporary?

TRC: I chose 1947 because the strongest memories I have of 
Newfoundland are from that period, the sights and sounds, even the smells of the place. It was such an interesting period. The echoes of the war were still there, the city was still full of American and other troops. In fact, there was a stronger bond between Newfoundland and the United States than there was between Newfoundland and Canada, however strong the mutual British connection. New England, for Newfoundlanders, was "the Boston States", and I still have relatives, Rendells, living in the Boston area.

I was able to draw on the wartime connection, WWII that is. I am a WWII buff, and setting my books in that period, 1947, allowed me to use that part of history to good effect.

The third book is also set in 1947, but much of the narrative goes back to WWI, which was a cataclysmic event for Newfoundland and for Newfoundlanders. That war cost Newfoundland so much in terms of manpower, and treasure, that it crippled the island's economy, and led to the loss of independent government in the early 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, and the island was bankrupt. I’ll add that in Canada, July 1 is Canada Day; but in Newfoundland, the date signifies a national tragedy, the First Day of the 1916 Somme offensive in France. Twenty thousand soldiers of the British Army were killed in a few hours. The Newfoundland Regiment was there, and it took a 90% casualty rate. Including my mother’s brother, who was twenty at the time he died.

Another reason for the time frame is that Stride has to rely on the personal approach, people rather than technology, to solve the crimes. As much as I enjoy modern forensic technology - who isn't captivated by all the CSI stuff, after all? - it's the characters that drive my books, not the widgets.

DC: Where did your protagonist, Eric Stride, come from? Is he based on a 
real character, or entirely a product of your imagination? Do you identify with Stride?

TRC: I do identify with Stride. He isn't based on anyone I have ever known, other than myself. A figment, if you will, of my imagination.

I sometimes think Stride might be part-aboriginal. There was, in fact, a "John Stride" who lived in the Bay d'Espoir area a century or more ago, who was part Micmac Indian. (The term used now is Mi'kmaq.) I even thought at one point that Stride's father would be part Beothuk, the native tribe that inhabited Newfoundland when the Europeans first arrived. The Beothuk became extinct, through a combination of warfare, murder, and - most importantly - through loss of territory, which resulted in starvation and disease. The last known Beothuk died in 1829.

DC: Have you thought of moving away from the Stride series, to a stand- 
alone novel? I know you've visited Cuba with a story 
in mind.

TRC: I did start a novel dealing with Stride's early rum-running days. That narrative is set partly in Cuba. A few years ago, I read I.F. Stone's 1946 book, "Underground To Palestine". One of the 
characters he wrote about was a German Jew named Rudy who had survived the death camps and who was running the British blockade against Jewish immigration into Palestine. Rudy’s early history, though, saw him in Cuba after WWI, where among other activities, he was a rum-runner. So you see the possible connection with Stride.

In my draft, Rudy becomes a character named Kurt Mosel, a veteran of the German Navy from WWI. I was in Havana in 2006, and toured the city, taking hundreds of photos. The thing about Havana is that the city is that with the American embargo, the old city hasn't changed a lot. Those photos are all there on my laptop, carefully labelled, ready for reference.

As to a stand-alone book, one that doesn't involve Stride, I haven't gone in 
that direction, not yet.

DC: A typical reader's question: Who do you write for? Yourself, or do 
you imagine a readership for your books, and then attempt to satisfy 
that readership?

TRC: When I started, I was writing entirely for myself. I never really thought about publication, but eventually I did get published, and Undertow was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. After that, I started, more consciously, to write for readers, or what I imagined readers would want to read. And frankly that has become a bit of a problem. I think a writer - this writer, anyway - loses something when he/she does that. It can be a hindrance.

DC: Some writers plot out their novels before starting to write, while 
other writers just, well, "write" and "see what happens", allowing the 
characters and the locations to define the narrative. Which group do you 
belong to, and why?

TRC: With my two published books, I simply wrote, and waited to see what would happen. In "Undertow" I started with a woman beaten and drowned in her bath on a rainy Saturday night, and took it from there. With "Rossiter" it was much the same. I started with three teenagers, late one night, rolling a discarded tire down a steep hill in St. John's, where it narrowly misses a policeman walking his beat, and collides with a parked car. Two of the three escape down a laneway, and when the cop follows in pursuit, he finds an old man dead on the steps of the laneway, battered and bloody. I didn't know who the old man was at the beginning, or why he was there, but 350 pages later I did.

With my third book, I more actively plotted the narrative, and ran into problems. But, with the help of a very good editor named Verna Relkoff, who works with my agent, Morty Mint, I got the story on track, largely because I went back to character and location.

DC: Do you have any plans to age your protagonist; in 1947, Stride is 38 
years old. Can you see him aging, say to his fifties or even his sixties? Even to your present age, which is 69?

TRC: I think aging someone to my present age – 69 would be a cruel thing to do. I don't much like being 69. I’d rather be forty. But, with a nod to Bernard Shaw, I will say that being 69 beats hell out of the alternative.

 Seriously, I have thought of moving the Stride narrative along to later 
years, to post-Confederation Newfoundland. The Government that took power in 1949, and stayed in power until 1971, was almost comically corrupt and inept. Joe Smallwood, the Premier, was the perfect man to lead Newfoundland into Confederation, but probably the worst of a mostly bad lot to lead a government. By turns, he became a despot, a bumbling dictator, eventually an embarrassment. Along the way he squandered countless millions of Canadian taxpayer dollars on hare-brained industrial schemes, at the same time neglecting the principal resource that Newfoundland had, the cod fishery, because he thought that Newfoundlanders really didn't want to fish for a living. Never mind that fishing was their life and their heritage. The "best small boatmen in the world", as Churchill called them.

So, the potential is there for a mystery novel or 
two based on the Smallwood years. Perhaps someday…..

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting interview. My husband's family is from Newfoundland and both he and his father have ordered Mr. Curran's books. Thanks for introducing us!