Canadian Noir? Eh?
Much has been made recently of the quintessentially sunny Canadian personality. Our impossibly handsome prime minister loves selfies with the common folk and our favorite word is sorry, even when someone steps on our toe or slams the door in our face. Today, it seems, Canada is all things bright and beautiful, and everyone wants to move here.
Can there be a dark side? Can Canadian writers even write about the gritty mean streets and fetid underbelly of society when Canada reportedly has neither? Canadian crime writers have long labored under the prejudice that if there are no mean streets, there is nothing exciting to write about. Big publishers fear that a book set in sunny, crime-free Canada will not sell. Who wants to read about nice? But, we bleat, Canada has racism, criminal gangs, and Fentanyl overdoses, too. Maybe, the publishers reply, but nobody will believe you. In scale, your fetid underbelly pales in comparison to the US or the UK.
In Canada, we have lots of snow and cold, both of which put a serious crimp in the average criminal’s aspirations. Rapes, muggings, murders, and street corner drug wars are all less enticing when it’s 40 degrees below outside. And yet, the stuff of murders— the jealousies, the greed, the betrayals, and rage—are as much a part of the Canadian human condition as anywhere else.
And Canadians want to write about them. We have our drug-infested Vancouver East Side. We have our Toronto race wars and our small-town rivalries. Even our bucolic villages have their dark secrets. What about Scandinavian noir, we say? Icelandic Noir, Swedish Noir, Norwegian Noir? What about Scotland and Ireland? All of them are mostly full of ice and snow, and if the international surveys are to be believed, full of nice, happy people, too.
Canadian Literary fiction has done our dark side proud. CanLit icons like Margaret Laurence, Miriam Toews, and Mordecai Richler have written about bleak prairie life, religious oppression, and ethno-religious strife. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse and Katherena Vermette’s The Break have illuminated indigenous despair. Regional and immigrant tales have shone a harsh spotlight on the sunny Canadian fairytale being pedaled overseas. These books have garnered lots of literary praise and awards and, hopefully, a few readers along the way.
Crime writers, however, struggle to find purchase in this rich black soil. The myth of the nice, polite, boring Canadian endures. Some writers solve this by pretending to be American or British, especially if they already have one foot in that camp. Peter Robinson and Maureen Jennings both spin tales about their native England. Linwood Barclay looks south to indeterminate small-town USA. But some writers are growing bolder, abandoning the hope of fame and fortune in favor of telling the stories of their own backyard.
So here’s a short, not the least bit definitive, sampling of recent Canadian Noir from east to west to north.
Donna Morrissey, The Fortunate Brother (2016). Set in hard-scrabble Newfoundland, where Donna hails from, this haunting tale about a family reeling from the tragic death of their son won the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel.
Peter Kirby, Open Season (2015). The streets don’t get any meaner than Montreal, where Kirby practices law. This powerful tale of vice and human trafficking won the 2016 Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award.
Brenda Chapman, Shallow End (2017). Chapman sets her gritty but poignant Stonechild and Rouleau police series in and around Kingston on the shores of Lake Ontario. This latest, about sex, betrayal, and family secrets, is the fourth in a winning series.
Robert Rotenberg, Heart of the City (2017). The city is Toronto, where Rotenberg practices law. Former homicide detective Ari Greene battles corruption and murder in the world of real estate, where greed and profit rule.
Giles Blunt, Into the Night (2012). Blunt’s Detective Cardinal series is a classic of Noir, shining a lurid spotlight on sex, greed, prejudice, and betrayal in a small Northern Ontario town. This tale won the 2013 Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award.
Sam Wiebe, Invisible Dead (2017). In this dark, fast-paced thriller, set in Vancouver’s criminal underworld, Wiebe recreates the flawed, hard-boiled, ex-cop PI for the modern era.
Chevy Stevens, Never Let You Go (2017). Stevens writes powerfully about the lives, losses, and secrets of women. Set in Vancouver and Vancouver Island, this latest is a chilling tale of love gone wrong and a woman’s fight to survive.
R.J. Harlick, Purple Palette for Murder (2017). Harlick’s richly layered Meg Harris series is anchored in rural Quebec but travels the country exploring aboriginal themes. In this latest, she looks at prejudice, greed, and murder in the NorthWest Territories.
Barbara Fradkin is a retired psychologist who is fascinated with why people turn bad. She has written numerous short stories and novellas as well as the critically acclaimed Inspector Green series that is set in Ottawa, Ontario. Two books from that series, Fifth Son and Honour Among Men, have won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. She is also the author of the Amanda Doucette Mysteries that follow its protagonist as she travels across Canada. The second book in that series, The Trickster’s Lullaby, is out in September 2017. Barbara Fradkin lives in Ottawa.