In the past, I’ve made large stacks of creepy reading with the RIP challenges in mind, but I have a habit of stacking up many lovely possibilities but then choosing different books altogether later on.
Perhaps this is partly because books can surprise you and take you in unexpected directions. Many of the books in my recent reading have been preoccupied with loss, and the body count has been much higher than expected.
Sometimes the most unsettling tales are those which are rather ordinary. Sure, there are still some scenes from Nick Cutter’s novels which I wish I could un-see, which are truly haunting in all the worst ways, but sometimes everyday stories about death really get under your skin too.
Although Jocelyne Saucier’s And the birds rained down was largely populated by octogenarians, it is a novel very much about life and living rather than death and dying.
So perhaps it is appropriate that Twenty-One Cardinals, purportedly about the 21 children in the Cardinal family, subverted my expectations as well. A loss overshadows all but the first chapter.
This 1999 novel was translated by Rhonda Mullins this year, in the wake of the success of And the birds rained down as a contender in this year’s CBC Canada Reads event.
Each segment is narrated by a different Cardinal and the novel opens in the voice of the youngest, who does not have the experience of his older siblings. He is the perfect companion for readers, who not only have to grapple with an excess of children on the page, but soon realize that there is a mystery hovering and are unsettled by the effort to assemble an understanding of past events.
Somewhere in the third segment, having reread the first two chapters, trying to swallow the feeling that perhaps I should begin to take notes and sketch a family tree, I relaxed into the story; it was clear that Jocelyne Saucier was keeping tight control of her narrative and I did not want to get distracted by the details. (Or, maybe I just wanted to know WHAT HAPPENED.)
This is not a murder mystery but one is preoccupied with the idea of who has died (at first) and also the idea of how it happened and (later) the responsibility attached to the event. The blur of siblings settles out, like debris following an explosion, and readers recognize that it is as much about perspective as voice, as much about the mystery of what makes us individuals as about what happens when an individual life is lost.
None of this is straightforward. Partly because there is a need to conceal the truth. “Here, words are as sharp as rock. I’ve grown unaccustomed to conversations that riddle you with pointless words.” Partly because time has passed. “I sometimes tell myself that we should have let the truth come out.” Partly because such things never are straightforward. “Truth is not where we think it is.”
Throughout Twenty-One Cardinals, there is an air of tension, which is just as unsettling if there had been a body laid out on the firs page.
“All it took was a moment; I had barely set foot in the lobby, and I felt the earth shift in my stomach. A sense of imminent, intimate danger went through me like a knife. The threat closed in as the minutes and the seconds ticked slowly by. What in the world am I doing in this bad dream?”
Like Jocelyne Saucier’s novel, it simmers with a strange energy, but in this novel the body is presented up front.
“A violent murder in a quiet neighbourood, our neighbourhood. A woman, my friend, murdered. Two young people missing, along with their father. I felt warmed, protected, in the tall shadow of this man in my living-room. He wasn’t some hakujin stranger in my home; he was a detective; Detective Rossi, who had grown up in the nightbourhood across from ours.”
The story is narrated by a neighbour woman, with the bulk of the narrative playing out in the 1970s, in a small Ontario community. Our narrator is isolated from the community and she is preoccupied by her relationship with a neighbour girl who has witnessed exchanges between the key players which leave her anxious and overtly questioning.
Here there is something simmering beneath which soon troubles readers, who recognize other aspects of the story as unsettling which the young girl does not witness in the same way. (With Saucier’s novel it is mining and here it is trash: so clever!)
“It was so like Yano to be obsessed in that way. Living in sight of the hill made his wounds fester. It was an ugly hill anyway, a mound of garbage that had filled in a green field. They said the garbage would make a natural fertilizer, but the grasses and trees they’d planted on it years ago were still patchy, ashen, and frail.”
As the story unfolds, and more people begin to seek answers to the lingering questions, it becomes clear that older crimes must also be investigated.
There is, for instance, the question of reparations and the divisions within the Japanese-Canadian community regarding the best way to address the injustice of internment during wartime. Years have passed, but the scars remain. Some are more visible than others.
“Didn’t I know how it felt to be left alone, deserted by the only one who knew you and loved you just the same? Pulled you close, took your secrets and gave some back, and then was gone? I would have done anything to make things the way they were before and to never be alone again.”
Both Jocelyne Saucier and Kerri Sakamoto present quietly disturbing novels, and picking up Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone seemed a contrast at first.
Certainly she does offer readers a bunch of bodies straight away and, in the first sentence, a murderess. But she, too, is fundamentally preoccupied by the same kinds of questions which haunt these other writers.
“A curious feature of Eunice Parchman’s character was that, alhough she did not stop at murder or blackmail, she never in her life stole anything or even borrowed anything without its owner’s consent.”
In both Twenty-One Cardinals and The Electrical Field, a dangerous act has devastating consequences, but the kinds of issues raised about responsibility and agency are different than those presented in Ruth Rendell’s murder mystery.
The root of the mysteries, however, is not far removed. Each book contemplates what motivates people to make small decisions with broad ramifications, the ways in which small acts of unkindness can balloon into cruelty, the codes of honour by which people live which directly contradict the codes of others.
Ultimately Ruth Rendell wants to understand what makes Eunice Parchment tick, which requires travelling back in time. Making sense of her relationships with her victims is of central importance but, ultimately, the set of questions which niggle are rooted more deeply.
“What was the root cause of Miss Parchman’s sullenness and depression?” Readers could pose the same questions about some of the siblings in Twenty-One Cardinals and the characters in The Electrical Field too.
The first book in Kelley Armstrong’s first series remains my favourite, Bitten, partly because it introduces Elena’s character. It’s unfair of me, because I understand the value of an emsemble cast, but I have not warmed to the other characters in the series as I did to Elena.
When I realized that Broken would pick up with Elena’s character (she also features in the second novel and makes appearances elsewhere in the intervening novels) I was pleased and when I discovered that the pack was travelling to Toronto for this story, I was doubly gratified. ( The descriptions could be lifted from a tourist guide, but I still enjoyed tramping through Cabbagetown and the Royal Ontario Museum.)
The plot of this novel adds another macabre layer, involving an artifact said to date to Jack the Ripper’s time, which is connected to those crimes. From a practical perspective, this object also serves as a reason to unite other aspects of the supernatural community in the series (some known and some newly introduced, some lasting and others dusted) and this creates a broader canvas for the later volumes in the series to rest upon.
Broken, too, however, pulls on some very ordinary fears and sorrows which aligns it with some of the more literary novels in this group. Illness and weakness, the sense of no longer being able to take actions which were once habitual, personal identity changing too quickly for comfort: a rogue werewolf or an unethical sorcerer might be frightening, but a loved one being threatened and oozing pustules are scary too.
“Murder set everybody’s alarm bells jangling. And now, once again, it was to him, Domenic Jejeune, that the daunting task of silencing them had fallen.”
If you love birding? “This was the most concentrated area of dedicated birders in the country, possibly in the world.”
If you love word play? “It’s a business of ferrets.”
Or a strong sense of place? “Having come from the city, it never ceased to amaze Jejeune that you could be that alone in the world. He walked along the beach, feeling the satisfying softness as the sand gave way beneath his slow, deliberate strides. He ventured as close to the tide line as he dared, the white noise of the waves breaking on the shingles. A set of paw prints ran along the sand, with an unbroken line in between. A small dog, dragging a stick in its mouth. Always the detective, even if, these days, he wasn’t a very good one.”
Set in England, the idea of combining burding with murder mysteries makes more sense than you might guess.
“Find a spot, a wall, a corner, a nineteenth-century oak beam, and watch. Watch the interplay of people, their unguarded expressions, their gestures, their body language. But if Domenic Jejeune could readily acknowledge that he was, by trade, a watcher, he could not have explained what it was that he was looking for.”
Sometimes the first volumes of anticipated series are thin as writers scramble to introduce key players while eyeing their word count, making general allusions to characters and overarching unknowns which motivate and secure the detective on a path which only becomes clear in later books (and perhaps was never clear to begin with).
Steve Burrows does a fine job of setting his supporting cast in motion, in such a way that one recognizes that revisiting the first volume later will be rewarding without feeling unmoored on the first pass. And one has a clear sense of a backstory lurking behind the scenes, but trusts that all will be revealed once the urgent matter of the bittens has been resolved.
In ongoing RIP-reading, my rereading of the Courtney Crumrin books continues. But what’s next?
How about you? Have you read any of these? Any on your TBR? Are you reading for the RIP X event, hosted this year by The Estella Society, or simply indulging in seasonal reads independently?