Monday, July 07, 2008

Personal thoughts on fictional settings and a chance to out some Canadians

In January I asked how readers felt about crime fiction set in places where they had lived. A week later, I asked how they felt reading fictional accounts of periods or events they had experienced firsthand.

Thanks to my recent reading of two novels and a short story by John McFetridge, I am now prepared to ask myself both those questions. I wrote last week about McFetridge's creation of Toronto as a great city of the imagination in his novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. His short story "Barbotte" does something similar for Montreal. So does his first book, Dirty Sweet, though that novel is set for the most part in Toronto.

I am around McFetridge's age and, like him, I grew up in Montreal. Like many of our generation, he eventually decamped and wound up in Toronto. I left for the United States instead, but enough members of my family took off for Toronto that I feel a part of that phenomenon. And if I hadn't so felt already, I would have the first time I sampled credible versions of the best bagels in the world – Montreal-style bagels – in Toronto. And please don't make the ludicrous argument that New York bagels are better.

I suggest that McFetridge's background may account for an undertone of wistfulness in both of his highly entertaining crime books and for his unusual accomplishment in creating a body of work whose setting is not just two cities but the very process of movement from one to the other.

The protagonist's reminiscences in Dirty Sweet naturally include an old girlfriend. But they also include many rock bands, local and international, popular in the Montreal of McFetridge's youth and mine. I even knew the keyboard player for one of the bands cited as having played raucous motorcycle-gang parties.

This protagonist, Vince, has wound up in Toronto, making his way in the criminal world, after a wandering life that has taken him from Montreal's suburbs through the Alberta oil boom to prison to the new Toronto, where there is real money to be made for the man (or woman) willing to fight for it. It's not too much to suggest that he is a personification of English Canada's history from the 1970s until now.

In Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the nostalgia has hardened into a wry and funny realism. The leader of a motorcycle gang remarks that the time has come to move the gang's head offices from Montreal to Toronto. This is an amusing example of the corporate mentality that finds its highest Canadian personification in Toronto. It is especially, and perhaps ruefully, so for those who know that many Canadian businesses of a more legitimate type similarly pulled up stakes and headed for Toronto after the separatist Parti Quebecois came to power in Quebec in 1976.

Both the novels are filled with violence, laughs and characters who are likable despite the violence they get up to. The novels are superb entertainment, in other words, offering credible takes on how crime works now in a rich, sprawling, shifting city just trying to figure out what to do with its money. But – and I hope this scares no one off – they're also moving documents of a major social shift. And, so help me, that combination of the personal, the social and the entertaining makes McFetridge a major author.

And now, let's play Out the Canadians. The keeper of this site is Canadian, though he no longer lives in Canada. So are are the keepers of a number of other popular crime-fiction sites. How many can you name?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Barbara said...

Kevin Burton Smith, Sarah Weinman, and Sandra Ruttan (recently relocated from western Canda to the US) come to mind.

July 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Precisely the three I had in mind, and I'm impressed you knew about Sandra Ruttan's recent move. More than ever, I am in awe of librarians in general and you in particular for the knowledge you have at your fingertips.

I recommend McFetridge highly, and I may discuss the books further in something more like a conventional review. I would not want anyone to think his novels are only for homesick Canadians.

July 08, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Damn it, someone got in ahead of me about Sandra Ruttan! She's terrific isn't she? I don't know McFetridge personally but Declan Burke says that he's a true gent and his books make me green with envy. I think he says more about current day Canada than any of the Toronto literary types.

July 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

McFetridge's books make interesting comparisons with Declan Burke's, with their similarities of structure but differences of tone. I wonder how much of this is due to the editor they shared.

And yep, I'm pretty surprised how McFetridge can say so much of such interest about Canada while telling such entertaining stories at the same time. These days, it's common for critics and readers to talk about the significant things Chandler had to say about Los Angeles or Conan Doyle about London or guys like Horace McCoy about Depression-era America. I wonder how many crime writers have been recognized in their own time as having something significant as well as entertaining to say. I hope McFetridge does not have to wait until he's dead to win that kind of recognition.

July 08, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm thrilled to see the recognition John is receiving internationally for his work. Two years ago, when I first read DIRTY SWEET, I was blown away. Having since met John, I must say that I think he's one of the nicest guys in the business and I look forward to catching up in Baltimore this fall. I, ahem, fear the Canadian crime fiction scene's stalwart love of cozies and amateur sleuth offerings will work against him on that side of the border when it comes to proper recognition, so I'll console John with the words of Jesus: "There is no Prophet without honour except in his own country."

July 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sandra, perhaps we can all have a serious discussion about this amid the carousing of Bouchercon. I've never known anything about the Canadian crime fiction scene, because I didn't start reading crime fiction until after I'd left. Perhaps Canadian critics might be attracted to the sociological interest of John's writing, and this interest might lead to wider appreciation of harder-boiled crime writing in la terre de nos aïeux.

July 09, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Peter, that could be a very interesting discussion. Behind closed doors, I could tell you something John and I have discussed that would shed some light on the reasoning behind my comments, but I don't want to publicly throw him under the bus, so to speak, by connecting him to my comments.

Most of the crime fiction authors that write within the realistic/dark end of the spectrum seem to be setting their work outside Canadian borders, and it seems more important to me than ever to nurture this type of crime fiction set within Canadian borders. DIRTY SWEET actually made Toronto interesting (said like a true Muskokan, turning up her nose at the city) and one of the things that still sticks out at me, after all this time, was the political jab over autism. The type of crime fiction that intersects with the real world and makes social commentary is something we need to see more of north of the border.

July 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I might do a lot more listening than discussing, since I am so far out of the Canadian crime fiction scene (though I did read a novel by Howard Engel in addition to John's two on my recent vacation).

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on Canadian writers of dark, realistic crime fiction and where they set their stories. Without in the least looking down my nose at Toronto, I share your assessment that John's novels make the city interesting.

July 09, 2008  

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