Shafted A Mystery is a departure in genre writing for author Sheila Peters, well-respected in Canadian literary circles for her published works in poeShafted A Mystery is a departure in genre writing for author Sheila Peters, well-respected in Canadian literary circles for her published works in poetry, short fiction and most recently, The Taste of Ashes, a gritty and gripping novel set in Guatemala, Vancouver and Smithers, B.C.
The small and vibrant town of Smithers, B.C. makes another appearance in this book and is, in fact, a character of sorts as all well-written mystery settings are, which places this book in a new wave of Canadian mysteries from large and small publishers where the once-pejorative words "local" and "regional" are applied to tasty, specifically spiced and culturally authentic writing in the same way those words have been used in a laudatory way in the world of cuisine for several decades, and rightly so. The best-selling mysteries set in Three Pines, Quebec by Louise Penny or in Kootenay Landing, B.C. by Deryn Collier are two that quickly come to mind. Collier, like Peters, is particularly brilliant at deftly using local details of setting, cuisine, the slightly nosy neighbours who truly have your back, and the vicious local power struggles which can turn deadly in a way that is utterly authentic.
I grew up in a small rural community and have preferred to live in them ever since so my nose quickly detects those authors who ladle on the local detail but without the depth of relationships, the true intimacy of life in a close-knit community. Local "colour" when plopped onto a formulaic genre is still formula-driven fast-food writing with a bit of well-worn sauce, not nearly as satisfying as the slow food served by those who grow and know their own local ingredients. Mysteries are my brain candy, the genre I most love to read to relax and to sink into another world's sights and smells and tastes and voices, as experienced by the observant sleuth or any reasonable facsimile on his/her way to settling things so that justice prevails (or a satisfying facsimile of justice).
Another interesting aspect of this well-written book is the choice of April as the month in which all the action takes place. April in Smithers will resonate with many readers who experience four seasons of the year as, without a doubt, April is the cruelest month. It gets our hopes up for spring, surely just around the corner. Peters delivers April's uncontrollable run-off, collective mental teetering on the edge, freezing treachery and the first beautiful dry, bare patch in the yard with true panache. If I was an Aussie reader, I'd be just as fascinated, in the same way that I am when a writer from Down Under gives me prolonged drought and a couple of murders to ponder in such a way that I'm thirsty after just a few pages.
So, what we have in April in Smithers is an era when party lines on the rural telephone exchange still existed and the internet is barely a rumour.There are property development issues afoot so astute mystery readers know we need to follow the money, for starters. Into this mix, strides and stumbles the fatigued protagonist, Margo Jamieson, a part-time auxiliary cop and stage manager/janitor at the high school theatre auditorium, a young woman with a big heart and a maternal eye on a troubled student who is homeless, vulnerable and unpredictable. There is also a fabulously wealthy, thanks to a lottery win, eco-activist, a hometown girl who abandoned a promising career in the U.S. to come home to Smithers and there to fund a think tank with visiting international scientists to solve environmental problems. She also wants to create a local wilderness park, much to the displeasure of some residents who expected her to fork over wads of her cash for their assorted causes instead of this park business, where local logging and mining jobs might be lost.
The geological and political elements in this mystery are fascinating; both well-researched and highly credible as this conflict is currently happening all over North and South America. This brings us to another interesting character, a reclusive, handsome geologist or mining company fixer or scout, or all of the above...the stories vary according to the purveyor of the gossip but he's a hometown son as well and he, as the surviving member of his family, has a stake in the rubble left behind from their once-thriving mine in the proposed park zone. Another unsavoury character is an an old prospector, the kind who snoops around other people's claims and digs up dirt in all forms, also a former swimming champion and fading beauty with a massive mean streak, a charming and philosophical cafe owner, a beefy and brusque female RCMP officer dealing with a vindictive, misogynist supervisor (another situation ripped from much more recent headlines as women serving as RCMP stand up in the new millennium and speak publicly about the nasty unprofessional jerks they have had to work with for years in a culture which blatantly condones sexism), and an appealing local historian who works as a telecommunications technician. I could go on with the list but what I'm trying to say is that, as in the best theatre ensembles, there are no small roles, only small players, and every character created by Sheila Peters is immensely memorable, whether they are on the page for a few scenes or reappear as major players throughout the entire book.
Who is using a dry cleaning business to send poison pen notes to Smithereens from all walks of life (or at least those who can afford to get their clothes dry-cleaned?)Who amongst this cast of characters would stoop to using a pistol on an old man and a homemade bomb to cover up their mistakes, nearly killing two innocent people in the ensuing melee? What is connected to whom and why? It's a very satisfying read which kept me guessing right to the "reveal". Now what I would like is a series of mysteries set in Smithers by Sheila Peters, one set in each month of the year. There is the grim fact of the Highway of Tears to investigate, for starters. And I would like at least one book to include the wonderful bookstore in Smithers and the great music festival too! Shafted A Mystery is recommended reading any month of the year.
What It Takes to Be Human I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is comWhat It Takes to Be Human I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is committed to an insane asylum by his (obvious to me) insane parents. There he has to hang on to his sanity while being experimented on with truth serum (sodium pentothal) or insulin injections, followed by relentless and devious interrogations. There is, as well as the criminally insane, a population of conscientious objectors and others whose chief failing seems to be hailing from German or Japanese, Chinese or Russian ethnic backgrounds. Communists and even a Mac-Pap veteran of the Spanish Civil War are memorably included as well as gay men, including former soldiers who are now being punished and "treated". The research is skillfully integrated and may serve as an eye-opener for some readers as to who exactly decides who the criminally insane "element" is and who has the power to put people away without a formal, legal link to the outside world. There is, as we fear, one particularly abusive staff member because there almost always is at least one sadistic bully in the workplace, and/or, in institutions like prisons and asylums with few objective eyes checking in to monitor and punish such behaviours.
Here we have a possibly unreliable narrator whose main ally on the "outside" is a beautiful dipsomaniac who clearly identifies with Sandy Grey as a man the same age as her own son, missing in action in Europe. She gives him a how-to writing guide, paper and pencils and Sandy begins his study of another inmate from an earlier time whose files he has discovered, those of an immigrant Scotsman wrongly accused of murder and summarily executed after a hasty and controversial trial. This case has very clear parallels to his own situation, as he is incarcerated with the threat of lobotomy, cold water hoses, experimental electrocution, castration and other horrors if he doesn't present his own sanity well enough to the attending doctors. And of course, he does go spectacularly off the rails from time to time. Who wouldn't?
It was truly gripping to follow the ravelling and unravelling of young Sandy's mind as he grappled with his own synthesis of reality vs the presentation of reality he had, on good advice from other inmates, to conjure up for the doctors and the Board. If the ending seems a little too neatly tied up with a bow, it's also an intense relief to this reader to know several of the outcomes did come to pass and justice was achieved at last! I'd recommend this for military history buffs, medical personnel and other writers who want to enjoy an interesting novel structure, deeply imagined characters, great Canadian and international historical research and the pleasure of a terrific story, very well-told.