As the English novelist P.D. James once noted, literature is full of works driven by an unanswered question—often involving crime or an act of violence, which is finally answered by the story’s protagonist. The most obvious examples fall within the detective sub-genre of crime fiction, in which finding out whodunnit is the motivator of both plot and protagonist. The conventional building blocks of a detective novel are few, but each is necessary: a crime (often murder), a detective, clues and a list of suspects. The solution, when it is found, is one that an intelligent and perceptive reader should be able to deduce from clues planted within the text.
As with all “rules” about writing, there is no challenge more tempting for an author than to break them successfully. Wayne Arthurson’s excellent The Red Chesterfield does just that. M, the book’s narrator, is an Edmonton bylaw enforcement officer who, responding to a complaint about a yard sale, discovers the eponymous piece of furniture discarded in a ditch. On closer inspection, he spots a severed foot poking out of a hole in the fabric. So far so good: we’ve got a crime (murder) and our detective (a lowly bylaw inspector, but still). But the book, which recently won a Crime Writers of Canada award for best novella, sets up genre expectations only to subvert them.
M isn’t a maverick; he’s a cautious person not given to heroism. At a suspect’s home, he can’t think of what to say; it’s the suspect’s wife who moves the questioning along. Unconventional familial and romantic relationships, tragic characters’ histories, and cultural backgrounds (M is Indigenous), which in less-skillful hands might be used to ramp up conflict between characters or explain their motives, are treated here simply as the disparate threads which weave together to form a life. The clues, when they arrive, prompt only more unanswered questions. Sometimes the story you think you’re living, The Red Chesterfield seems to argue, is about something else entirely.
Similarly to Arthurson’s book, Edmonton author Jennifer Quist’s third novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, isn’t interested in who committed the crime. On the first page the reader learns that Morgan Turner’s sister Tricia was murdered by her boyfriend; the ensuing novel takes place over the long period between his arraignment and his trial. The murderer has confessed but is pleading not criminally responsible because of his mental illness. Quist’s novel explores the aftermath of violent crime—how it impacts those left behind.
Morgan’s grief has numbed her; unable to muster the outrage her mother feels or feel the maddening forgiveness her father performs, she moves listlessly through life, fixated on the idea of exorcising the evil that has stolen her sister. Her numbness extends to her voice; for most of the book Quist presents Morgan’s dialogue in summary. It’s a smart and affecting authorial choice, as is the inclusion of a dramatic chapter-length courtroom scene reminiscent of a Law & Order episode in a novel that is otherwise more subdued.
The apocalypse of the title can be understood in two ways: as what exists after the end of Morgan’s world, in which her sister was alive; and, as one of the characters notes, as “a Bible word for uncovering something… a revelation.” With the compassion of an immigrant co-worker at the meatpacking plant and the brother of the lawyer prosecuting her sister’s killer, Morgan finds an answer to the question weighing her down and a way back to feeling alive.
Wendy McGrath’s Broke City, the final novella in her Santa Rosa trilogy, touches on some of the same themes as Arthurson and Quist. Like the protagonists of the other books, Christine (who for most of the book is a child) is from a working-class family that is no stranger to conflict. The book is told in vignettes, lush snapshots of memory. Plot, for McGrath, is not paramount; connections between the scenes (a road trip to the narrator’s grandmother’s house after a horrific mass murder in the same rural Saskatchewan community; an interrupted Christmas dinner; a moment of childish artistic abandon) are obscured—a mystery for the reader to ponder, if not solve. Christine offers clues when she asks her mother, “What does Edmonton mean? What does the city mean now?” and when she thinks, running in the dark after her father who ignores her pleas to wait: “Who was this man?”
What’s clear is McGrath’s facility with language, for describing perfectly the sensation when understanding is within one’s grasp, close enough to taste on the tongue but somehow not close enough to feel between one’s teeth: “You could see every star in the galaxy, the universe, and Christine knew it would take until she died to count them all.”
James wrote that mysteries, “in the tradition of the English novel… [see] crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, [and] virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive.” The truth, as Arthurson, McGrath and Quist reveal, is that our world, our cities and our lives are not so clear-cut. Human experience—of violence, love, creative desire—cannot be so easily explained. The revelation of meaning is more than a matter of sifting through the right clues. These recent works subtly unmoor the idea “that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe.”
— Yutaka Dirks is an Alberta writer now living in Winnipeg.