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Crime Fiction, True Crime, Historical Mysteries, and History

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My first eleven books are known as the Collins-Burke mystery series, revolving around the trials and tribulations of my two main characters. Monty Collins is a Halifax criminal lawyer who lets off steam by singing in his blues band, Functus. Father Brennan Burke is priest whose family emigrated from Ireland to New York City under a cloud. Burke is now a choirmaster in Halifax, but aside from his musical brilliance he is hardly a choirboy. He is fond of a drink, uses salty language, and has occasionally let a pretty face compromise his vows, but he stays the course as a priest of God. Monty and Brennan sometimes work together, and sometimes inadvertently against each other, as they try to solve the murders that happen on their turf.

My new book is a departure from the series. The Keening: A Mystery of Gaelic Ireland is a stand-alone historical novel. I’ll be returning to the Collins-Burke series for my future novels!

Like any other writer, I love reading! I read a lot of history, philosophy, politics and, of course, good fiction. My list here includes some of my favourite genres, books that I have enjoyed or that have influenced my own writing: crime fiction, true crime, historical mysteries, and history.

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The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream, by Dean Jobbs

This is a true-crime thriller about a doctor who graduated from McGill Medical School in 1876, and went on to use his expertise to murder nine women and one man, in Canada, the U.S., and England. Dr. Thomas Cream’s weapon of choice was strychnine. A serial poisoner, Cream also engaged in blackmail in relation to his crimes. The reader is quickly caught up in the story: will Cream be caught and convicted of this poisoning or that? How many murders will he get away with? Dean Jobb makes it painfully clear that the lives of sex workers or single, pregnant women were less valuable than the lives of middle-class or other “respectable” people, their deaths of less importance. Meticulously researched, the book opens a fascinating window on the development of crime detection and forensic science in the 19th century. Jobb’s superb writing makes this story as fresh and suspenseful as if it had happened just last week. 

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A Little More Free, by John McFetridge

It is often said that “setting is character,” and in A Little More Free, 1972 Montreal is indeed a vibrant character. Reading this book, we moan and cheer our way through the iconic Canada-Soviet hockey series, which is played out over the course of the novel. And, of course, the Vietnam War was raging, and we meet some of the resisters and deserters who came to Canada to live and protest the war. When one of those American deserters is found dead on Mount Royal, Constable Eddie Dougherty gets the case. What was it that accounted for David Murray’s death? Was it his history of anti-war activism, his dabbling in the drug trade, his association with Montreal’s Irish mob, or was it something else entirely?

Eddie Dougherty is determined to find out. McFetridge gives us a down-to-earth portrayal of Dougherty as a patrolman, a regular cop, a working class guy with ambitions to rise higher. His approach to any investigation is: “What would a detective do?” As the story develops, so does our protagonist: we see Eddie thinking more and more like the detective he yearns to become. The author captures the social attitudes, and the lingo, of those times, nearly 50 years ago. And he keeps us in suspense to the very end.

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Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax, by Jon Tattrie

Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax, Nova Scotia, gets a mention or two in my books, and not in a flattering way. Jon Tattrie’s excellent book gives us the history of Cornwallis before and after he arrived in Nova Scotia. His war against the First Nations people and the French here is well known. Less familiar is his earlier role in the “pacification” of the Scottish Highlands, the depredations committed against the Highland Scots including, specifically, the direct ancestors of my husband’s family. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Cornwallis and his men went on a frenzy of burning and looting, murder and rape. Cornwallis did such a jolly good job of it that he was sent to Nova Scotia to establish a fortress, fight off the French and the Indigenous people, and secure this land for England. Tattrie encapsulates all this in a concise and enlightening book of history.

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Book Cover Ridley's War

Ridley’s War, by Jim Napier 

When a veteran of World War Two is murdered at a regimental reunion in Yorkshire, the man’s son, a detective with the London Metropolitan Police, teams up with DI Colin McDermott to find the killer. The investigation takes them to Italy, where they learn of a violent incident in a luxurious villa during the war. Replete with fascinating details about the war in Italy, the story is fast-paced and the mystery compelling. Napier has created distinctive and engaging characters, and their dialogue is a delight to read.

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Causeway, by Linden MacIntyre

This book was one of the inspirations for my Cape Breton mystery novel, Lament for Bonnie. Linden MacIntyre is of course a renowned and highly respected Canadian journalist, and it was his conversation with a fellow journo in Ottawa that inspired him to write this memoir of growing up in Cape Breton. The other journo, having heard a bit about MacIntyre’s trip home, a a trip up MacIntyre’s Mountain, said, “You’re talking about another world. You have to write that down.” And, eventually, he did. The island has a rich culture of Gaelic speakers, hardscrabble miners, academics, priests, politicians, and Celtic musicians. MacIntyre writes of fiddlers who would go from house to house, moving in for a few days to enjoy the food and drink, and playing the fiddles for all to hear. So, the book is filled with larger-than-life characters, including ghosts and including his grandmother Peigeag, who was known to have special powers of healing. And she was suspected of having the power to “put the buidseachd” on somebody, that is, put a curse on them. It was also said that another woman with such powers had “put a wish on Dan Rory”, i.e., had put a curse on Linden’s father back in the past. Fascinating stuff, wonderfully written. (Not coincidentally, one of my characters, a little girl named Normie, has “the sight” like her great-grandmother in Cape Breton.) But MacIntyre’s book is about more earthly matters as well: politics, jobs, and the other challenges and elements of life we all share.

An aside here: I had a good friend, a lawyer, who grew up in Nova Scotia and who “had the sight.” She was the most level-headed person you could ever meet, and she laughed about practising law in British Columbia; she said she couldn’t talk about her gift out there, because people would think she was crazy, and her law practice would suffer. But in Nova Scotia, the people were a bit more sophisticated about these arcane matters, and she could speak freely about them.

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The Guardians, by Andrew Pyper

This is a crime novel and ghost story all in one. Four boys grow up in a small Ontario town called Grimshaw; they were teammates on a hockey team called the Guardians. Many years later, one of the gang, Ben, kills himself. Ben was the only one of the four who never left Grimshaw. He stayed in his family home on Caledonia Street, directly across from the town’s haunted house. Why had Ben stayed? What had he seen during his obsessive observations of that sinister house? The boys’ reunion leads them to revisit a brutal crime that took place in the house two decades ago, a crime they had set out to solve at the time, with consequences they could never have foreseen. The narrator is Trevor, and he knows there was something in that house, a presence. The story’s characters are expertly drawn; their friendship is a major element of the story. And the plot is ingenious; I kept asking myself “How did he think this up?”

Pyper’s writing is brilliant. One example: “But I’ve come to learn that evil’s primary talent is for disguise: not letting you hear the cloven hoofs scratching on the welcome mat is how the devil gets invited inside. It’s how he can become your friend.”

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The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny

This story is as remarkable for its setting as for its story line: the setting is a monastery deep in the wilderness of Quebec, Saint-Gilbert-entre-les-Loups (Saint Gilbert among the Wolves). This is truly a beautiful mystery. The beauty lies in the ancient chants sung by the monks―compiled in a world-famous recording―and the lovely light shining onto the slate floors and stone walls of the monastery. When Chief Inspector Armand Gamache walks in and sees the light fractured into rainbows, “it was like walking into joy.” But, of course, all was not sweetness and light. This order of monks was reclusive and mysterious despite their beloved recording; even the Catholic Church thought their order had died out. And their choir director had been murdered. That’s where Gamache and Inspector Beauvoir come in, and they have many obstacles to covercome—including some in their own police department—before they can finally arrive at the truth.

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Beneath Her Skin, by C.S. Porter 

I have been fortunate enough to get a sneak preview of a new novel, the first, by C.S. Porter, scheduled for release this fall. The story is set in a lovely town on the Atlantic coast. The small-town police officers, accustomed to bicycle thefts and drink driving charges, are confounded by a series of brutal and strangely-staged murders. When the bodies begin to pile up on land and in the sea, a city detective is brought in to investigate. There is nothing forced in the writer’s depiction of the tough female detective, Kes Morris. Many writers can’t quite pull this off, but C.S. Porter nails it. Kes Morris doesn’t suffer fools gladly; she is prickly about her authority, but she likes to relax with a couple of beer, sometimes a few too many. Gradually, over the course of the novel, she reveals a painful family history.

The writing is first-rate, the novel tightly plotted. The reader is swept along by the expert pacing and the mounting suspense. Who is killing these people and why? As Kes digs into the town’s history, she uncovers horrific secrets in the town’s dark past.   

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And back to history again . . .

The Great Escape: A Canadian Story, by Ted Barris 

This book is of interest to me for its remarkable content and also for the fact that my uncle was a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III at the time of the escape, as were the fathers and uncles of several of my friends and neighbours. And my eleventh novel is set partly in Germany, and has a subplot relating to World War II.

Many of us have seen the movie The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen making his get-away on a motorcycle. Well, that didn’t happen. But what did happen in preparation for the Great Escape was stranger than any fiction one could imagine. Another thing you wouldn’t learn from the movie was the key role played by Canadian airmen. It almost defies belief that the prisoners could hope to fool the German prison guards, who were always on the lookout for escape attempts. The Germans had posted extra armed guards with dogs, and buried microphones under the ground.

But the POWs were determined. And who were the main designers and diggers of the tunnel? Canadians from Ontario and Manitoba. Who was the officer in charge of security at the entrance to the main tunnels? A Canadian from Alberta. Who was one of the main forgers preparing the fake but genuine-looking documents that would be needed after the escape? A Canadian from Nova Scotia. Reading Ted Barris’s gripping account of this event will leave you gobsmacked.

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One more:

Alexa! Changing the Face of Canadian Politics, by Stephen Kimber

This is an excellent biography of a revered figure in Canadian politics, Alexa McDonough. Alexa changed the face of politics in Nova Scotia and in Canada by pursuing her vision of social justice, equality and feminism. Her political journey took her from her early days as the only woman in a Legislative Assembly of 52 members, where she faced misogyny and mockery from many of the other MLAs, to the day of her resignation as federal NDP leader, when she was honoured with six standing ovations from all sides in the House of Commons. A strong, dedicated, hard-working political force, she is also a warm friendly person known for her willingness to listen and understand.

Kimber’s book is also a history of politics in Nova Scotia, giving us details of past events and scandals, prominent political figures and—inevitably, given that we’re in Nova Scotia—colourful characters. Kimber gets all this into the biography and, thanks to his matchless skills as a writer, makes it an enjoyable and eminently readable book.

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Learn more about The Keening:

In 1595, Tierney’s Guesthouse is the domain of Brigid Tierney. We see Brigid and Shane enjoying a banquet at the castle of the ruling family, the Maguires. But one of the guests has a sense of foreboding. Sorcha the prophetess sees harrowing times ahead for Ireland. The morning after the banquet, Sorcha is found dead on a bed of oak leaves. And Shane is accused of the killing.

Ireland has had a complex and at times woeful history, and we see that history being played out in the lives of the Tierneys, past and present.

The family’s modern-day hotel is threatened with a development that will block the hotel’s best feature, its view of Enniskillen Castle. But the project can be stopped if archaeologists find important artifacts buried on the land. So the dig commences. Artifacts? Yes. But also a sheaf of prophecies. And a body, a bogman, four hundred years old.

September 23, 2021
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