Giles Blunt’s Blackfly Season (2005)
Seal Books, 2006

It would have been far more appropriate to have read this mystery earlier in the season in, say, Blackfly Season.

And it would have been far more appropriate to have read it in closer proximity to the first two books in this series (which began with Forty Words for Sorrow and continued with The Delicate Storm).

But I wholly enjoyed all the inappropriate choices I’ve made in reading this in a cool and bright September, nearly eight years after I read the second John Cardinal and Lise Delorme mystery.

The setting is familiar. Here is a small taste of it, which also happens to be the novel’s opening:

“Anyone who has spent any length of time in Algonquin Bay will tell you there are plenty of good reasons to live somewhere else. There is the distance from civilization, by which Canadians mean Toronto, 250 miles south. There is the gradual decay of the once-charming downtown, victim to the twin scourges of suburban malls and an unlucky series of fires. And, of course, there are the winters, which are ferocious, snowy and long. It’s not unusual for winter to extend its bone-numbing grip into April, and the last snowfall often occurs in May.”

A significant part of this series’ appeal, for me, is the setting: northern Ontario. About an hour north of Algonquin Park. I love that area. Not so much the blackflies in the spring, but all the snow. One of the characters in this novel reminisces about snow that stretched to the second-floor windows one winter: I love that!

But the strongest appeal is the characterization and, in concert with its development, the style of storytelling. Although it does read like a mystery, it’s less, er, clinical than some (say, Val McDermid’s, although I also enjoy those) but also less sentimental than others (say, Rita Mae Brown’s, although I’ve enjoyed hers too).

This passage reveals the kind of balance struck:
“A moment later, Dr. Schaff extracted the bullet. A nurse held out a Baggie to receive it, then handed it to Cardinal. He went out to the prep room, took off his scrubs and slipped the Baggie into his breast pocket. A moment later, he felt a tiny spot of heat there, the bullet still warm from the girl’s brain.”

See, there’s feeling there, but you’re neither distanced from it entirely, nor brought wholly into its midst. And alongside the seriousness of the story (and the seriousness of the blackflies: no laughing matter) is a kind of quiet irony that diffuses some of the tension in the novel.

For instance: “A biker named Wombat,” Delorme said in the car. “They probably imagine it’s some ferocious predator. But I’ve seen wombats at the Toronto Zoo. They’re these cute, fuzzy little things. You want to pick them up and take them home.”

The language is fairly straightforward, as you can tell, but the figurative bits are evocative: an eavestrough hung from the roof like a disabled limb, a woman was all nose and cigarette, and the hills lumber around the town like a herd of buffalo. Simple and effective.

And the pacing works perfectly for me; the perspectives shift just when I’m ready for it and the balance between revelation and mystery is perfect for my curious-but-not-sure-I-want-to-know-either approach to this story, which certainly has its dark parts.

And although you’re not aware of it in your eagerness to turn the pages, I think the crafting here is more remarkable than I might guess after only a single read-through. There are some seamless shifts from scene to scene, and subtle layering between themes.

So, for instance, an extreme emotion ending one chapter with the next chapter beginning with the same outward expression but rooted there in a contrasting emotion. You know, the kind of thing you imagine being edited perfectly on the screen, one wail fading into the next and all the rest of it shifting the narrative ground beneath your feet. And, for example, two characters (one from each “side” of the story) both try to find release and redemption in creative work, one through photography and the other through poetry, with their efforts successful to varying degrees.

Must you read the first two volumes in the series to enjoy this story? Technically, perhaps not. But my fondness for the characters is rooted in their struggles and the emotional resonance would definitely be stronger if you’d grown attached to the people in previous books.

Have you enjoyed Giles Blunt’s writing as well? Or read a mystery with a setting that stands out?

Companion Reads: Anne Pigeon series by Nevada Barr, Sugarmilk Falls by Ilona van Mil

PS Yes, I read this because he’ll be appearing as part of this year’s IFOA.