Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche
Russell Quant, #1
Insomniac Press, 2003

Things that I like about the first book in Anthony Bidulka’s mystery series:
1. Barbra;
2. Saskatoon; and
3. Russell Quant.

1. Barbra is a four-year-old Standard Schnauzer who’s firmly attached to Anthony Bidulka’s sleuth but also adores sleepovers and playdates with Brutus. (Brutus is her brother, who lives with Kelly and Errall, who willingly take Barbra on short notice, which is perfect, because a P.I.’s schedule is unpredictable.) One of the things that I like about Barbra is that she’s not particularly likeable: she has her own personality, but it’s a long way from Rita Mae Brown’s Sneaky Pie. (I know this sounds like I’m dissing Sneaky Pie, but I’m a member of her fan-club, though I’m not a flat-out fan of talking-animal-mysteries.) She barks in all the right places but, above all, she is a dog, who hovers in the background, but doesn’t have a lot to do with solving the mystery.

2. Who sets a novel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada? “At about 215,000 people and smack in the middle of the Canadian prairie, Saskatoon is not action central, but neither is it the end of the world. It’s safe and clean. It has four distinct seasons, some of the friendliest people on the globe, and it’s home.” I don’t know Saskatoon, but if I did, I’d be thrilled to spot it in the pages of a mystery novel and I’m happy to be introduced to it on the page. I loved reading Howard Shrier’s Buffalo Jump and Tanya Huff’s Blood series because I could recognize Toronto’s streets and subway stations and lots of readers who have called Saskatoon home must feel the same way about Anthony Bidulka’s series.

3. Russell Quant is a down-to-earth and likeable main character and the fact that we’re meeting him near the beginning of his career as a private investigator (he’s only been doing this for a year) makes for an interesting approach to the series. He doesn’t have any a-m-a-z-i-n-g skills (he can’t hack into government records in his sleep) and the cases that he’s had have been pretty tame (he refers to “The Case of the Hiding Pussy Cat” early on).

When Amuse Bouche opens, he’s a little surprised to receive a call from prominent and well-connected business man, Harold Chavell. But Harold’s motivation is soon clear; he’s living in the closet and he’s counting on Russell Quant’s being gay as insurance that Russell will be tactful and discrete in investigating the unexpected disappearance of Harold’s lover, Tom Osborne. Tom disappeared on the day that he and Harold were to have been married, but there is evidence that Tom has followed the couple’s planned honeymoon itinerary and Harold has questions that he hopes Russell can answer. (And that’s all I’ll say about the plot.)

Not only do I like Russell and his dog, but I like his friends, too. Some of the secondary characters are afforded quirks that hint at complexities that could surface in later volumes in the series, just as some slight tensions between characters might be developed into something more interesting in later books.

But the reason that I’m not rushing out for the next volume, despite liking Russell and his Saskatoon circle, is that I stumbled on the writing itself.

I don’t require perfect grammar from my fictional characters, and I am even quicker to look the other way when I am being entertained. Particularly when it comes to dialogue, I’m not bothered by prepositions dangling and slippery agreements, and I’ll accept a lot of imperfections in the name of realism. But there were so many times that I tripped over rough spots that — in combination with a wordiness that seemed to showcase the awkwardnesses — I found it distracting.

Here’s what I mean:
“No parent should have to attend his child’s funeral. Of all the sorrowful faces, his was the most stricken. Although it made no sense, I wished I could rush over and give him a hug. Boy, what a wuss I am! The funeral hadn’t even begun and I didn’t even really know [name omitted], but the sight of his bereaved father brought me close to tears. I couldn’t help but wonder where [name omitted] would have fit in with this group. If at all.”

The emotion is honest and it fits with Russell Quant’s character, but it loses the edge for me with the writing such as it is.
Mind you, I know that mystery series can start slow. I was warned, heading in, that Sara Paretsky’s first two novels were not as well done as the later V.I. Warshawski stories. And the same was true of Elizabeth George’s first, too.

So maybe Russell Quant has gotten a new editor as the series is now in its seventh volume. Perhaps as the series has gained popularity, the press has budgeted for more substantive copy work (Insomniac puts out some great stuff).

Whatever went wrong there, I hope it’s been remedied: Barbra, Saskatoon and Russell deserve better.

Would you recommend later books in the series? Are there other series that you’ve read which got better as you followed along?