Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Susan Philpott’s Blown Red (2015)

It begins with a body. And with short chapters, told from a variety of perspectives, guaranteed to create strong pacing.

Philpott Blown RedBlown Red is the first in the Signy Shepherd mysteries ,and it introduces readers to the series’ star, as well as some of the other key personnel working on the Line.

One stop on the Line is relatively visible and accessible (both by victims and perpetrators, so the protection it offered is not always sufficient): the women’s shelter in Linden Valley.

Named Vicky’s Place, it is housed in a classic red-brick Ontario cottage, in a community characterized by all the staple small-town elements (from a bandshell to the community park): Linden Valley.

There is a surprising amount of action in Linden Valley. Grace Holder, the executive director of the Women’s Centre, has a ringside seat to much of the tumult (to the dismay of her partner, Kim).

A good deal of the “constant crisis” which surrounds Grace, is due to the ambitious decisions made by new workers, like Signy Shepherd, who has only recently begun to contribute beyond her work at the shelter, on the Line.

In charge, but not on the scene until the novel is well underway, is Maitland McGuinness Spencer (she is a fascinating character, whose background will, hopefully, be illuminated in later volumes).

She has had first-hand experience of the devastation wrecked by abusers and murderers, whose exploits often go unpunished because the law does not adequately protect the victims of domestic violence.

As such, the Empress of the Line is motivated and positioned to point women to freedom, just as conductors did on the line of the Underground Railroad more than a century ago. She is a near-mythic figure, charismatic and powerful, capably directing from off-stage.

In contrast, Signy is sometimes short-sighted and definitely inexperienced, but she is assertive and quick-thinking, observant and compassionate.

Even if readers are, on occasion, frustrated by her impulses, Signy is a sympathetic and relatable character.

She is also a character with a past, and its unearthed layers shift only slightly as the novel progresses.  Abandoned as a toddler in a garbage bin at Christmas time, near the Eaton Centre in Toronto, Signy appears to be rootless. Which makes it all the easier for readers to take her side, to adopt her yearning to belong.

“It was essential that a conductor’s life on the Line stay separate from her private life, not only to ensure her safety and the safety of her family, but to maintain a boundary between the excitement of the Line and the realities of real life.”

Because of Signy’s past experiences, her difficulties growing up in the foster care system, Signy isn’t great with boundaries. She recognizes that they are important, in theory, but even when she tries to draw them in reality, she misjudges.

But she is also a seeker, looking for understanding, inwards and outwards. And this approach invites patience on the part of readers.

Ultimately, the success of this series depends upon the success of Signy’s character with readers.

Susan Philpott builds the relationship between her and readers with broad strokes but secures the attachment with details. One character, who observes Signy’s bookshelf, notes: “Not one book had been purchased merely for pleasure. She was driven, but then he’d known that already.”

[This, after first listing some of the shelf’s contents (including Girl, Interrupted An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). There is some depth lurking beneath the commercially-paced, page-turner’s surface.]

Beyond the nuts and bolts of genre-writing’s conventions, Susan Philpott succinctly adds sensory detail to add to readers’ experience of the narrative. She covers all the marks: from bristly chins to 600-thread-count sheets, from the whine of cicadas to the snickering of gravel, from the reek of oily creosote to the acrid bite of nicotine, from a hundred-watt smile to sand billowing like  a rooster’s tail, from a congealed grilled-cheese sandwich to a mouth like the inside of a bird cage.

These feel a little more like good-advice-afterthoughts in the context of a first novel whose preoccupation really must be characterization, but a second volume holds the promise of a more natural touch with minor details.

For the first volume in a series, Blown Red is a solid start. From the half-way point, it is difficult to put down, not only because the pacing is compelling and the plot intriguing, but because readers will already be invested — in Signy’s success, and in the successful escapes which she facilitates.

[Edited to add a link to the second book in the Signy Shepherd series: Dark Territory.]

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