Deryn Collier Open Secret

Simon & Schuster, 2014

Just as one character follows another’s gaze, readers of Deryn Collier’s mysteries will find their perspective shifting.

“The cafe was starting to fill with lunch customers. Duke Forsberg stayed in place, rolling his now-empty coffee cup between his meaty hands. He stared straight ahead with an intensity that took Bern by surprise. He followed the man’s gaze and found it was directed at Aimee, behind the bar making a tray of fancy coffees.”

Not only does she present her narrative through a variety of points-of-view, but even in a single scene there is a dynamic quality to the story-telling. A character’s eyes are drawn in a certain direction, and so are the readers’ eyes.

Perhaps that is not uncommon in mystery novels. But what is less common is the presence of an observer observing the observer who observes, as when Bern watches Duke, who is watching Aimee. (And, then, a small boy tugs on Bern’s sleeve. Even Bern was being observed, unbeknownst to him.)

This is one of the most satisfying elements of Deryn Collier’s mysteries; she maintains a balance between complication and ease and the reader is engaged in the complexity without being overwhelmed by it.

In a broader sense, this is what fuels the plot of the novels as well, a gentle interweaving.

Both the first in this series (Confined Space) and the newest (Open Secret) present a wide cast of characters who live in and around Kootenay Landing in British Columbia (including at least one drifter in Confined Space).

The sense of one character’s segment of the narrative wandering into the next’s makes sense, given the size of the community, and just as the narrative begins to knit more tightly together, approaching a resolution, readers come to understand the bonds between characters more fully as well, as does a newcomer to the centre. But despite the wide cast of characters, the heart of the series is Bern Fortin, who is new to Kootenay Landing, which offers readers a fresh perspective on the community, and is also new to working as a coroner.

“Bern sat down on his stump and stared out at the marsh, where life had already returned to normal for the birds, insects, and small ground animals. For him, there would be no return to normal. This was his reality now: this caring for the dead; this accounting for each detail; this attempt, however unworthy, to name, catalog, impose reason, and bring understanding to each death in the greater Kootenay Landing region. This was his duty.”

This excerpt offers a glimpse of the landscape, but even more importantly it hints at one of Bern Fortin’s preoccupations, the disparity between the eruptions of human brutality playing out against a peaceful background.

This is evident in Confined Space too:

Deryn Collier Confined Space

Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2012

“Bern watched as an officer walked toward them through the field, collecting the small flags that they had places at intervals throughout the crime scene. Soon there would be no indication of what had happened. It would go back to being a stretch of dry, trampled grass. Not a place in itself but a place between departure and arrival – a passing-through place.”

But most importantly, this passing-through resides in Bern himself. Memories of brutality and injustice that he has witnessed as a soldier in Afghanistan lurk beneath his calm demeanor. And in Open Secret, readers come to understand more about the kind of conflict this character embodies and endures.

One of the most appealing aspects of Bern Fortin’s character is his desire to right the wrongs of the world; he carries more than his share of responsibility for those around him (alive and dead). This compassion and responsibility is evident in the series’ secondary characters as well. For instance, Evi Chapell, in Confined Space, a safety investigator at the local brewery, who is preoccupied by the possibility of tragedies that she works to prevent.

In fact, it is these small acts of compassion for others which cushion the blow of the violence in these novels. The deaths often occur in very ordinary environs, in places which are highly trafficked or, at least, familiar. So although these scenes are not described in visceral detail, there is an additional layer of disruption for readers who can easily imagine themselves into a scene where they were working overtime alone on a long weekend or tramping along a hiking trail.

(Deryn Collier’s style of story-telling lands somewhere between Giles Blunt’s with John Cardinal and Louise Penny’s with Gamache, with an overarching sense of the outdoors and a small community shadowed by landscape, and a rather solitary protagonist like Cardinal and fewer recurring characters than Gamache comes to know.)

Adding to the stories’ credibility is the author’s inclusion of scenes that play out in characters’ workplaces. Necessarily, this is true in mystery novels when crimes are solved by professionals, and this series does consider Bern Fortin’s position in some detail. But it is the detail provided about minor characters’ work which acts as a shorthand to credibility, whether it’s Evi’s work as a safety officer, or a waitress’ evening shift, or a brewery bottle-washer, or an offsite message taker, or a child services worker.

Another layer to this development of credibility exists in the inclusion of forms and documents related to the plot, which have been prepared by characters. (This reminds me of early Minette Walters’ mysteries, as does the fact that I will never forget some of the crime tableaux she created and that is true, too, of some of Deryn Collier’s scenes.)

Both Confined Space and Open Secret are tremendously satisfying stories; they are believable and engaging tales, and I eagerly anticipate Deryn Collier’s next installment.

Have you read either of these? Or, do you have your nose in another mystery these days?