Thursday, December 17, 2009


We just returned from a dive holiday in the Galapagos Islands. We had planned for three years for this, and it was worth every penny spent, every moment of anguish as we came to terms with the fact that in this most sacred and inaccessible diving destination on the planet, I couldn’t dive. I say “we,” because I think it was almost as hard for Bev to see me standing at the rail of the dive boat, as it was for me, while she sped off in the zodiac to plunge into awesome currents and be surrounded by sea lions hell-bent on playing among the divers and fifteen-foot hammerhead sharks driven by curiosity (not hunger) to swim among them, checking them out. I had been preparing for this for years, picking up my scuba instructors certifications from PADI and SDI, the two leading dive associations, as well as logging five hundred dives. But last spring I experienced a lung problem while diving in the Saint Lawrence, and that, according to the doctors, was that.

So. Watching Bev dive was almost as good as doing it myself. Being with a group I have dived with for years was the continuation of an ongoing adventure. And topside, the Galapagos are a moving experience. We got to Wolf and Darwin, islands few people see because we were on a specially licensed boat. We walked among sea lions (huge seals with ears), so close you could literally bend over and touch the nursing pups (which we didn’t; only the three Russians attached to our group felt sufficiently entitled, despite park rules. The entire archipelago is a park). We chatted face to face with comical blue-footed boobies (like large sleek seagulls with personalities). And we admired the ancient tortoises on Santa Cruz before dining out in Puerto Ayora, a modern town of fifteen thousand so upscale we window-shopped to see what cruise ship customers buy.

Sometimes not doing something, hard as it may be, is an adventure in itself. I didn’t dive. I wrote wrote wrote. And watched. And looking at the instant replays on cameras, hearing the chatter of a dozen divers, keyed up before they went in, elated when they returned to the ship, it was almost like doing it myself. In fact, sitting here with snow outside the window, I’d swear I’d been face to face with hammerheads, less than a body’s length between us, only last week. No? Well, Bev was!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

To Review the Reviewer

Over the years I’ve reviewed a lot of fiction for a variety of publications, ranging from The Globe and Mail to Canadian Literature. That was an extension of my job, teaching university and working as a critic. Now, my major occupation is writing mysteries. I think my past has made me less anxious about reviewer response to my own work and at the same time more pleased by the accolades. But I find myself in a curious position. I still write the occasional review. Do I review as a critic or as a creative writer? A mystery writer? Or as an objective reader ( even though there is no such thing)? Mystery reviewers, on the whole, tend to be more generous than literary reviewers: concerned less with poetics than plot, and focused more on character than characterization, more on clarity than originality, more on suspense and surprise than on illumination or catharsis. Should my reviews be based on what I try to do as a writer, or what I like, personally, as a reader? Or on what my readership, limited as it may be, expects? What if generosity and candour are incompatible? I might as well keep on writing reviews; it helps hone my skills, writing mysteries. But should I publish them, or consign them to the bottom drawer (if I still had a desk, which in the age of laptops seems anachronistic)? Don’t know. Just thinking out loud. That’s what reviewers do. Writers think and feel and wrestle with copula verbs and ineffable truths. Thinking is good; too much, though, leaves the soul dried as autumn leaves. So: a revision. Good reviewers are writers. I think I’ll continue to do both.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of shoes and ships ...

…and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.

I said to Bev at dinner tonight, I hope it’s teaming rain tomorrow, then I can stay in and write all day. I paused, then said: I hope it’s warm and sunny tomorrow, then I can go out and work on my wall (a stone wall that I’d like to finish before it snows). How lucky am I, how incredibly lucky! Nearing seventy and there’s so much to do. A new novel, a new wall. The idea is to make them both seem inevitable, like they’ve been here, in the world, forever.

Downtown Bookstore: Owen Sound

On October 17th I sat in the window of the Downtown Bookstore, almost literally, and Hazel Lyder, the congenial and energetic owner, served coffee while I chatted with people, and sold some books. It was a wonderfully warm and intimate event. My brother Steve and his wife, Janmarie, arranged for me to be there. Among those turning up, a dear old friend, Jack Morgan, and his wife Linda, whom I’ve known almost as long, appeared on the scene. Jack and I lived next door to each other in residence at Huron College, UWO, in 1958. We’ve known each other fifty years, plus. Now, does he remember every name in our corridor? Let’s start with Winston Nelson, from British Guiana, who was on the other side of my room, due north. When you’ve known someone so long, it’s hard to believe you don’t remember the exact same things. Linda was great at the event, answering questions and promoting; she should be working for Dundurn Press. Jack, of course, knows what I’m writing about, even when I’m not always too clear, myself.

Writers Reading: Westport

October 25th found Bev and I in Westport, Ontario. It’s a town to remember. We parked and wandered down a few inviting sidestreets, looking for a place to eat before the reading, which was to be held at the Westport United Church. When we passed people they would nod, some said hello, everyone smiled. What a beautiful, gracious, congenial town. And the reading, organized by Stillwater Books and the charming and enterprising Steve Scanlon, along with the Westport Arts Council, represented by Norman Peterson, Brin Jones, and others, was a mega-success. I led off the program, followed by the irrepressibly entertaining Mary Jane Mafini. After a break for the fifty or sixty members of our audience to refresh themselves, Barbara Fradkin talked and read from her powerful, Ottawa based, novels, followed by Giles Blunt, who likewise talked and gave a great performance, doing a theatrical reading from No Such Creature. It was a balanced afternoon, fun for us as writers, and, I think for the organizers and attendees, alike.

Prime Crime: Ottawa

Next Saturday, October 31st, I’m doing a signing as the guest of Linda Wiken at her bookstore on Banks Street. If anyone in Canada knows Canadian mystery novels, it’s Linda. It should be a good time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Owen Giving Thanks

My grandson, Owen, is in grade three and lives in Vancouver (with Simon and Charlie, and their mom and dad, Laura and Fred). When I read his essay, saying thank-you to his parents, I was overwhelmed. He's one lucky boy, but his parents are even luckier. Putting this on my blog is my own way of sharing and saying thanks!

Thank you for transportation. Thank you for giving me food. Thank you for giving me a shelter. Thank you for taking work off and stay home when I am sick. thank you for buying me toys. Thank you for letting me have sleepovers and play dates. Thank you for playing with me when I am lonely. Thank you for giving me life. Thank you for having birthday parties for me. Thank you for helping me with my homework. Thank you for making me feel safe. Thank you for buying us a Christmas tree. Thank you for taking me places. Thank you for buying me clothes. Thank you for helping me on things I don’t know. thank you for helping me learn things. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for giving me soccer and field hockey lessons. Thank you for getting me sports equipment. Thank you for getting me a Nintendo Wii. Thank you for gettign me a computer. Thank you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Thank you for dropping me off at school. Thank you for taking me to restaurants. Thank you for taking me to markets. Thank you for helping me be a better person. Thank you for giving me the name Owen.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Graves Matter

It’s been quite a while, now, since The Hamilton Spectator has published a column by Don Graves, one of the premier critics in the country, and the only reviewer of note to focus on Canadian mystery titles. Recently in the Word on the Street festival in Toronto I sold quite a few books. Almost every sale was to a reader of either Margaret Cannon in The Globe and Mail or Don Graves in The Hamilton Spectator or on The Spectator’s website. Mystery novels have huge sales in Canada and, although often ignored in favour of so-called “literary” writing, some of negligible significance, they need and deserve a sound critical representation. Graves provides this, not just for Hamilton but for the whole country. I’ve never met the man and, yes, I have received good reviews from him, but even if I hadn’t I would continue to check him out for advice on what to read and how it might be read. Let’s hope his absence is of short duration.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Westport: Writers Reading October 25th

The Second Annual Writers Reading event, sponsored by the Westport Arts Council and Stillwater Books is being held on Sunday, October 25th at Westport United Church between 1:00 and 5:pm. I'll be reading in very good company. Giles Blunt will be there. I've never met him but I'm a fan. The irrepressible Mary Jane Mafini will also be reading, along with Barbara Fradkin, another very highly regarded mystery writer I haven't met. If you're in the area, drop in. It should be a great afternoon.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Writer in the Window: Owen Sound

Through the good offices of my brother Steve, I'm scheduled to be at a signing in the Downtown Bookstore in Owen Sound from 11:00 a.m to noon on Saturday, October 17th, as part of this dynamic bookstore's Independent's Day celebration. If you're in the area, drop in, or drop in to the Bookstore anytime, it's worth the effort. With it's café and fine selection, it's a major attraction in Owen Sound.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Word on the Street

The annual Word on the Street national book and magazine extravaganza is being held next Sunday, September 27th, in Toronto, Kitchener, Halifax, and Vancouver.

I'll be signing in the wonderfully named "Writer's Block" at the Crime Writers of Canada booth, WB15, on the Queen's Park circle in Toronto from noon to 1:00 p.m., sharing the stage with Howard Shrier.
Other crime writers will be signing throughout the day, including Vicki Delany, Rick Blechta, and Elizabeth Duncan.

The festival is a major event, even for those who don't read mysteries (which is a mystery in itself). Hope to see you there.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Images That Shape Our Convictions

Last night on the news: two images that speak to each other in a cacaphony of voices I don’t comprehend. Video of Private Jonathan Couturier in a flag draped casket, being brought home from Afghanistan. Jonathan was the 131st Canadian soldier to die in a war he had recently described as a waste. Another image in the news, one of children celebrating the end of Ramadan in Kabul. Only it wasn’t children, it was boys—not a single girl among the jubilant throng of boys, not a single woman in evidence among the men.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Writing in Sand

I want to share an astonishing video. It shows art being created in the most ephemeral of media imaginable, tells a complex story with heart-breaking simplicity, and defies those who would limit great art to particular genres or specific contexts. If we could only suspend time without making it meaningless.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Crimes and Punishment

(My response to the escalating and arbitrary divisions between “literature” and “genre” writing, especially in Canada. I promise my next entry will be more chatty.)

The division between so called genre writing and literary writing is arbitrary. Alice in Wonderland is fantasy fiction. Orwell’s Animal Farm is fable; his 1984 is dystopian fiction. Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” is a horror story; Atwood’s Alias Grace is a mystery. Frankenstein and Dracula are masterpieces of horror, the former speculative and the latter psychological. James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake is science fiction, although Atwood demurs on the facile categorization. Who would presume to deny P.D. James the epithet, ‘literary writer,’ despite her penchant for writing mysteries. Morley Callaghan showed a lifelong fascination with the thematic implications of crime. Michael Ondaatje continues to do so. So do I.

There is good writing and there is bad writing. Some ‘literary’ writing is execrable. I have served on award juries and been the editor of a literary journal generously funded by the Canada Council. I have read some brilliant literary writing by Canadian writers and plodded through a great deal of bad. Some ‘crime’ writing is bad; but some is profoundly well written. To dismiss the good with the bad on the basis of perceived formulaic restrictions is like refusing to buy a house because it has windows, doors, and a roof.

After a career as a literary critic, I have taken up the profession of mystery writer. This means I write mysteries, and these are intended to be no less literary than imaginative works I previously published with the House of Anansi, Cormorant Books, and Turnstone Press, all Canadian literary presses supported by various granting agencies. Recently, Giles Blunt turned from crime writing to publish a ‘literary’ novel. The powerful and poetic language, the psychological depths, the brilliant uses of locale to explore character and develop plot that are present in his mysteries enhance his newest work. Should it be considered less, or his crime novels more? All writing is genre writing of one form or another; all fiction follows certain conventions, subverts others. There are many ways to explore the human condition from a Canadian perspective. Writing about murder is one of them.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Writing Local

Some genre writing, particularly mysteries, are set nowhere, with a few map names thrown in to suggest the contrary. These are often as successful as they are ephemeral. Mysteries that rise above the limitations of genre, where ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ converge, are set in real places, even if the real places are made up. Consider how actual and accessible the settings of Louise Penny’s novels are, and how intrinsically important to plot and character development. The Eastern Townships come alive in her writing as a suitable scene for murder. Ross Pennie’s Hamilton, Giles Blunt’s thinly disguised North Bay, these are locales that extend beyond the edges of the page.

I don’t write as a Canadian writer about a country called Canada. I write about the village of Blair where I grew up, the city of Toronto, where I have lived from time to time, the familiar backroads and country places of Ontario. From my own experience, living, traveling, reading, imagining, I try to locate my fiction as precisely as possible.

I write, in an upcoming mystery, The Gibraltar Coordinates, about Easter Island, which Bev and I have visited several times, and she’s written about in her book Inventing ‘Easter Island,’ and about Baffin Island, where we’ve hiked extensively, described in my book, Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape. But I also write about London, New York, Berlin, and other places, not just because I’ve been there but because I hope to connect my readers with the particularities of place that allow for larger themes than genre writing might seem to admit.

Truly engaging fiction is local. Jane Austen knew that. So did Dashiell Hammett. So does Dan Brown. You can’t have big themes without the small details. You can’t generate moving drama, or amusing comedy, or romance, or intrigue, among geographic generalizations and evasions. From the perspective of someone who writes about murder, I hate to think death is ever a small theme, even when explored with wit as a thrilling or amusing diversion.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Roasting the Pig

Like everyone else, I’ve been through good times and bad. Among the best have been my adventures in diving. Among the worst, an incident last spring that brought an end to my diving career. My first scuba gear was a reluctant Christmas present from my parents when I was fifteen, in 1955. My final dive was in the Thousand Islands among close friends associated with Adventure Divers in Peterborough, Ontario, a dive shop, travel agency, and virtual friendship centre where I’ve been a diving instructor for the last few years.

Yesterday afternoon, Pepé and Sherry, who own the shop, co-hosted their annual pig roast and potluck with Marybeth and Dave. Bev and I drove out with mixed feelings. I’m very fond of my diving buddies and have felt pretty low about not diving with them again. We have shared some amazing experiences. These are people who have become important to me in ways difficult to describe. My life has been in their hands at depths of 130 feet, and theirs in mine. However different we may be on the surface, down there our connection is based on intimate and absolute trust.

With thirty or forty close friends gathered round, a presentation was made to mark my untimely transition to non-diver status—as a celebration of the good things we’ve shared, not a lament for what’s been lost. I’m a writer; nothing is ever lost, it just gets turned into fiction. When it was time to leave, I wanted to hug each and every person there. I may have missed a few. Sorry. I’d like to name you all. But if I forgot a single name, I’ll feel bloody miserable. So, I’ll just say thanks. Thank you for the generosity of your affection, for the good times we’ve had in exotic places and in damned cold water close to home, for welcoming me into your special community, for being fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Public Writer

Writing fiction is a very private act, meant to reach as wide an audience as possible. An elderly friend of mine, long since dead (I supposed he died younger than I am now), insisted that's what drove so many writers to drink. Hugh Garner was an accomplished and successful writer, and stayed sober through each writing project, then drank himself into oblivion as he went through the procedures of being a public figure in order to sell books. He accepted this as the natural order of things.

For myself, I'm finding sustaining a public profile both exhausting and exhilarating. I look at a mystery writer like Louise Penny and marvel at how open and accessible she is. In trying to do the same, I seem to be making innumerable trips to bookstores, in an effort to make myself known. I trust the novels are good, but if no-one reads them ...

I'm a mystery writer. It doesn't count if I wrote quite successfully in the past in other genres. So, I present myself as a mystery writer. It can be tremendous fun, and occasionally quite humbling. I was practically ejected from the premises of a bookstore in Kitchener by an assistant manager not out of her teens. On the other hand, I have been warmly received by stores from Brockville to Cambridge, Picton and Port Hope to Guelph and Huntsville, Hamilton, Bracebridge, Belleville, and Kingston. Sometimes, stores have neither of my mysteries in stock, or perhaps one or two copies. Nevertheless, many smaller independent stores have been very gracious but, then, perhaps more surprisingly, so have Chapters and McNally Robinson.

Driving hundreds of kilometres to "market" a book or two hasn't driven me to excessive drink, although occasionally to a glass of wine or two. As I drive around, I've been lining up signings, and have been invited to a book club in Peterborough and a writers' festival in Westport (and perhaps to others, if they work out). Bev usually goes with me, so we have good times, hanging out and seeing Ontario. Most of my "marketing" efforts are necessarily in Ontario because that's where I live.

After a day or two on the road, it's always good getting back to "Stonewood," and to Miranda Quin and David Morgan—it's always a relief to find they're still there, waiting for me.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Two more Quin and Morgan mysteries are virtually complete. I'm wrestling with which should go next. One is more in the thriller genre, taking Miranda to Easter Island and Morgan to Baffin Island, before they meet half way through, back in Toronto, to resolve plot complexities with international implications. The other is closer to a British drawing room mystery, set in Toronto and Muskoka cottage country, but with resonance connecting the quirky members of a Society devoted to Shakespeare's contemporary, Francis Bacon, to a much larger world. Both still feature Quin and Morgan!
Titles seem to take as much time and thought as re-writes. Getting just the right one that will attract new readers, not put off familiar readers, and sum up the novel without giving too much away, is a daunting task.
For the thriller, I've tried Crimes of the Early Morning (too artsy), Killing People Is Wrong (too whimsical), Murder Casts a Long Shadow (too melodramatic). I think I've settled on The Gibraltar Coordinates (intriguingly enigmatic, I hope).
For the drawing room mystery, I think I've settled on The Dead Scholar. I've tried a lot of others, including Dead Reckoning (my publisher thinks it's too common, although it has only been used once, in 2005, and once in 1978), and, my favourite, A Goodly Huge Cabinet (an allusion to Bacon's notion that all informed people should have a "cabinet of curiosities" to keep the souvenirs of their lives for safekeeping—too esoteric). And others, as they say, too numerous to mention.
Now, I need to decide, which comes next, after the psychological emphasis of Still Waters and the gothic play in Grave Doubts??

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's in a name?

Now that I have a blog site to go with my updated website, I'm a little more conscious of "my" presence on the web. When I Google my own name I find it really isn't mine at all. There was a John E. Moss U.S. Congressman of some note (I'm John E (for Errington), as well), and there is a John Moss serving life in Arkansas whose story is heart-wrenching, if his claim of wrongful conviction is accurate. He is worth checking out on compassionate grounds. John Moss is the 10,878th most common name in the U.S., with 56 living in California and none living in North Dakota (statistics for Canada unavailable). There is a picture of a tombstone on Google marking the grave of a John Moss born in 1604, who died 103 years later, in 1707 (I have a number of centenarians in my family, all women and all on my mother's side). And there is a Jon Moss out there who was a drummer for Boy George and Culture Club and for a band called The Nipple Erectors, as well as Adam and the Ants and The Damned (a lot to live up to, although Jon isn't John). I think I've come up with a genealogy project based on names, not genes.

Monday, August 10, 2009

First Entry

August 10/o9

This is my first entry; I'm still setting things up. At this point I'm a little uncertain about who will be reading this. What I'm intending is to write whatever comes to mind in relation to writing mysteries, particularly my own. Quin and Morgan occupy a real place in my day to day life as I work ahead on the series. But I also plan to comment on mysteries in general and how they are crafted in books, television, and movies. If effect, I'll be posting the occasional review.
Meanwhile, back to work. (Whaling captains used to sign off on their log entries, "and so ends this day." I love the vaguely ominous sound of closure in those words, but my day isn't over!)