In Mark Lisac’s engaging new mystery, his second novel after a long career as a political journalist, Edmonton lawyer George Rabani reopens a client’s sale of his personal photo collection to the Alberta government. Rabani and client Jack Ostroski wrestle with the government over old photos that raise moral dilemmas. Some could embarrass the party in power. One could identify the National Guard soldier who killed a student at a 1972 Wisconsin demonstration.
Ostroski was a third-generation Kodak employee in Rochester, NY, before making his way to Hollywood. That career—with a possible starlet romance—was interrupted by the Korean War. Returning rootless, he lost another near-love at a Buffalo TV station. Now he fixes and sells old cameras in Edmonton.
The characters live as if in a movie, holding the values—and temptations—of black and white times. As Rabani walks, his window reflections “flickered past like frames of old movie film.” A closed cinema’s poster case is like a tombstone marking the end of the culture that began with vaudeville.
Ostroski is Old School. He prefers his Underwood typewriter, where “nothing turns into something…. Not like an arrangement of electrons in a computer.” Worse, digitizing images is “a destructive perversion… like an atomic bomb,” that renders the timeless photo ephemeral. The new demon cell phone photos “make everything forgettable” by detaching us from our experience. For him, the decay in the image medium reflects our loss of meaning, of the past, of our moral bearings, both individually and in the political and social order.
Alberta is portrayed as young, indeed averse to any past: “Here history is something to be wiped out, as if one is ashamed of it.” One romance ends when the woman must move to Chicago to find work in her field, “historical preservation.” The province’s sleek new high-rises connote “the land of… endless new optimisms.”
The novel is carefully structured: a comic surprise in the opening hostage scene sets up a later threat, then a fatal conclusion. But on these Edmonton mean streets people aren’t murdered. If the genre recalls Walter Neff of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1946), the novel’s inspiration is Walter Benjamin, who distinguished history from remembrance: “History tells you what happened in the past…. Remembered events are infinite because they are only the keys to everything that happened before and after them.” The past lives and controls the present even as our images of it decay. With his eye for detail and the courage to inflect his genre conventions, Lisac proves a dab hand at conveying weighty themes lightly. Like those movies.
—Maurice Yacowar is a professor emeritus at the U of C.