- Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film eds. by Jeannette Sloniowski and Marilyn Rose
This smart and comprehensive collection stands as evidence of the rich variety of Canadian crime fiction. Sadly, one of Detecting Canada’s co-editors, the literary scholar Marilyn Rose, passed away shortly after this volume was published. Rose and her co-editor, Jeannette Sloniowski, have assembled a collection dominated by analyses of crime-oriented novels, with a final section venturing into film and television.
Crime writing, as Beryl Langer points out in her chapter, is a transnational form, but its variations are shaped by the national particularities of legal systems and collective ideas about law and order. For Canadian crime fiction, these differences manifest themselves most obviously in the sorts of detective heroes around which novels (and series of novels) turn. Langer states that Canadian crime fiction gives us “[t]he ‘mild-mannered decency’ of Eric Wright’s Charlie Salter, the unarmed good intentions of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn or Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry, the self-deprecating klutziness of Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman or Paul Grescoe’s Dan Rudniki.” Missing from Canadian crime fiction, most of the time, are the semi-psychotic rogue cops of bestselling US crime novels or the burned-out protagonists of so much Nordic crime fiction.
David Skene-Melvin’s historical survey, which reaches back as far as 1817 (the year of the first crime novel written in Canada, Walter Bates’s The Mysterious Stranger), constructs a genealogy for Canadian crime fiction but conveys, as well, how fragmentary and interrupted its lineage has been. The history reconstructed here is dotted with eccentric frontier melodramas, orientalizing pulp fiction set in Montreal, and Mountie adventure stories, with few enduring characters or conventions.
The chapters focused on individual authors and their series are refreshingly even-handed, acknowledging achievement while capturing the ideological ambivalence that so often marks the crime novel. In his [End Page 463] analysis of Michael Slade’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police police procedurals, Brian Johnson shows how the subversive elements in these books function to relieve the guilt of colonial settlement. In Giles Blunt’s novel The Delicate Storm, Manina Jones argues, formal and ideological closure are achieved by the move to cast threats to peace and order as almost exclusively American, rather than endemic to Canadian society. Jennifer Andrews and Priscilla L. Walton show how Thomas King’s Thumps Dreadfulwater novels, in their regular movement across the US-Canadian border, undermine any sense of national sovereignty and of significant differences in the legal order. Péter Balogh’s trenchant reading of Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant mystery series, with its queer detective hero, argues that the ideological project of these books is in large measure that of normalizing and domesticating queer difference. Pamela Bedore’s close analysis of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series likewise notes the ideological pressures that limit these novels’ engagements with gender. The volume’s two co-editors each contribute sharply observant chapters on internationally consecrated single novels: Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season (Sloniowski) and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (Rose).
I wished the final section, dealing with television, had been longer, but its three essays are strong contributions to the field of Canadian television studies. Sarah A. Matheson’s “Wojeck and the Urban Crime Drama” nicely captures the textual tensions in this important series between a hero who conveyed an image of confident stability and a historical context (that of the late 1960s) marked by a crisis of consensus. Lindsay Steenberg and Yvonne Tasker analyse the series Durham County, noting the ways in which it both staged and critiqued male violence and thus seemed both ready for US television markets and significantly different from anything to be found there. This final section is rounded out effectively by Patricia Gruben’s comprehensive overview of Canadian films and television programs dealing with crime.
Since the mid-twentieth-century golden age of the metropolitan private eye, crime fiction has become more international and...