Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Before the Bench in Brockville

This past weekend marked the second annual Thousand Islands Writers Festival held in Brockville on the Saint Larence. Bev and I attended and I did a reading in the Saturday afternoon mystery session in the Court House. It’s difficult to imagine a more exciting, and daunting, location to read about murder and mayhem than an actual court room, especially with Judge Cosgrove, in a manner of speaking, presiding. It was memorable. I even got to address members of the jury (that part of the audience seated in the jury box). It was a bit unusual to address the court with my back to the bench, but not being a lawyer, I adjusted.

The organizers of the Festival, especially Doreen Barnes as Chair and Russ Disotell, who acted as MC, did a great job, bringing together a diverse cluster of writers and an enthusiastic gathering of readers. There were many volunteers who should be thanked, but I don’t have the names. Thank you, all. A great deal of thought went into everything from the writers’ goodie bags at the beginning to the wine and cheese celebration at the end. It all helped make this a great event.

Bev and I stayed at the Victoria Inn where the gracious host, Susan Szaraz, offers wonderfully contemporary service in a truly charming and authentic period setting (www.brockvillevictoriainn.ca/index.htm).

I do want specially to thank Jake and Pat at the Leeds County Bookstore (73 King St. West) for their enthusiastic support. From a writer’s perspective, there is nothing more gratifying than finding a bookstore where they genuinely love books and believe in the books they sell (including mine).

I would go back to the Thousand Islands Writers Festival in a minute or, in fact, next year, as a writer or as a reader and listener. Just consider the line-up this year. It was stellar. Reading with me in the mystery segment were R.J. Harlick and Janet Kellough. Also reading, on Friday and on Saturday morning, were Sarah Perry and Tish Cohen, Charlotte Gray and Roy MacSkimming, and children’s writer, Elizabeth Kelly. Due to health problems, I couldn’t be there for the entire weekend. Next time, I’ll do better.

It was a real pleasure and privilege to read with R.J. and with Janet in our session chaired by the irrepressible Russ Disotell.

It’s a pleasure to affirm that the TIWF is well on it’s way to being an institution (especially if they continue to hold readings in the Court House)!

And Brockville! What a beautiful historic city. We’ll be going back for sure, one way or another.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hey Randy

A good friend of mine just reminded me how long it’s been since I last blogged (sounds like something you’d take a laxative for). I’ve been distracted, but I’ll get back on track. I have to go in for a bit of surgery this Friday and, in a week or two, I plan on catching up on my blogs (sounds vaguely offensive, but at least I’m not going to tweet). In the last few months I’ve been forced to take things easy, but I’ve been writing with a vengeance.

The third in the Quin and Morgan series is coming out early next winter. We’re still wrestling with the title. I’d prefer The Reluctant Assassin. My publisher wants the zombiesque title, Reluctant Dead. We’ll see who holds the power here … As if!

I’m in for a a period of convalescing, so there’ll be no excuse, Randy. I’ll blog.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Vive the Difference

One advantage to writing a blog read by only a few is that anything I say can have a large impact and little consequence. So, here goes.

Recently, there has been an uproar about Supreme Court judges having to be bilingual. This precludes 80% of Anglophone Canadian lawyers from consideration; but it also demands that Francophone judges be professionally adept in English, which is not so limiting only because they have had to learn English to survive in a North American world.

A generation ago, as an academic critic, long before I began writing mysteries, I was on the founding executive of The Association for Canadian and Quebecois Literatures, an academic group that de facto supported cultural difference, although it seemed horrified by the idea of political separation. I’ve always been surprised by the petulant silence in the ROC during the sovereignty debates, but surely we’ve reached a point of maturity in our parallel histories where silence is demeaning and an insult. Quebec is a nation with a National Assembly and a distinct culture which springs from our common heritage and overlaps with Canadian culture and history as a whole. Surely it deserves political autonomy. The rest of Canada will not dwindle into a cultural wasteland and Franco Canadians in the ROC will benefit from having both a Canadian homeland and a motherland in Quebec.

We have been a cereal box country long enough. Let’s join forces, Canada and Quebec, recognize each other’s autonomy, celebrate out differences, honour what we have in common, and stop fretting about René Levesque’s sad brave eloquent admonition to seize the future, whether in reference to the Habs or the Quebecois nation. This little essay is not about separatism, a word which has no meaning in the context of mutual sovereignty. It is not about independence, which begs to know who and from what. It is about common sense and co-operation, and a future where we cease to be a burden to each other and instead become allies.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where's Barbara Budd!

Without Barbara Budd, As It Happens is just another radio program. How on earth could CBC brass possibly have made such an egregious error. When a radio program achieves the status of cultural tradition, leave the bloody thing alone! The banter is gone, the wit and the warmth are gone. I did an informal survey of listeners: every single one was irritated to outraged by the arbitrary removal of Barbara from the show. Shame on CBC for its insensitivity to listeners' preferences. She was part of our collective Canadian lifestyle. CBC has turned many fans into mere listeners. Lingering over dinner to hear AIH appears to be a thing of the past. If the brass don't answer to listeners, just who the Hell do they answer to?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sex, Violence, and Other Mysteries

This was something I posted on a DorothyL listserve discussion (April 26) which I thought might be of interest:

Long before I started writing mysteries, I published a book called Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel. After a brief flurry of sales, it died a merciful death. In the first of my Quin and Morgan mysteries, Still Waters, there is a strong sexual component. A rape scene, crucial to character and plot, is presented with retrained brutality that underscores the lasting horror. The description of a male’s first affair is emotionally graphic and a subsequent fantasy tryst is emotionally empty; in the latter, the sex is graphic, in the former it is muted, tender, and fraught with innocence. My point: sex is character, sex is plot. When it’s neither, as in life, it’s just sex.

The third novel in the series, “The Gibraltar Coordinates” which is due out next spring, is more of an action-packed thriller (the second is gothic, the fourth a drawing-room puzzle). There’s lots of intimacy and affection but little on-stage sex; there’s violence enough to keep the wheels moving fast, but never separable from character-in-plot.

There are no rules, each representation is different, an integral part of the composition. But if sex is difficult to write, or awkward to read, it shouldn’t be there. If violence titillates when it should terrify, it’s extraneous.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stranded at Hazlitt's in Soho

There are worse ways to be stranded abroad than in Hazlitt’s Hotel in Soho. I’d rather be home about now, since in a couple of days there’s a mystery gala in Picton, being held in association with Books & Co, where I was to be one of the writers to read a bit and talk about murder. I’m assuming Rick Blechta, Mary Jane Mafini, Michael Blair, John David Carpenter, Vicki Delany, Violette Malan, and Janet Kellough will still be there for the April 22nd event. I’ll still be at Hazlitt’s.

London is beautiful at this time of year but we’re being held captive by the volcanic activities in Iceland. We were due to fly out this morning. We’d booked in here for our last night away, after totally low-end accomodation in London and Paris over the last couple of weeks. Now we can’t get away. The décor is 18th century, William Hazlitt, the great essayist lived here, and the ‘library’ has autographed books by previous literary guests like Umberto Ecco and J.K. Rowling. I’m sure in due course at least one of my mysteries will find its way onto their august shelves, along with Beverley’s book, Inventing Easter Island.

By chance Bev and I bumped into Kirk Howard, my publisher at Dundurn Press, and Beth Bruder, VP of Sales and Marketing, at the London Book Fair. The whole affair was pretty low key because of the flight limitations. Still, it was great to be so far from home and talk about Canadian publishing. Like us, they’re probably anxious to get home, and yet it’s hard not to feel the excitement of being stranded. For Bev and I, a few more days at Hazlitt’s will be a luxury we can neither afford nor forego.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Yann Martel and What’s Her Name

As a writer, you have a better chance of falling into a pot hole on main street and ending up among talking rabbits and erasable cats than snaring a publisher’s advance in the millions. Yet it happens. Yann Martel is apparently getting somewhere around three million for his new novel. More incredibly, a woman in Nanaimo is pulling in over a million for her first, repeat, first novel. Yes, it does happen.

Don’t forget, this is the writer’s own money. The publisher is betting the writer’s work will bring in enough to make it up out of his or her earnings. It’s a gamble, since if the book fails to earn big bucks, the publisher is out of pocket, not the writer. But it is also something of a self-fulfilling prophecy since the publisher has a vested interest in extravagant marketing, beginning, of course, by flaunting the huge advance.

So why am I writing about this? Because most writers are professionals: that means by definition that there is not a direct correlation between what we do and what we make. Some medical doctors bring in more than Yann Martel, some work as an act of grace in places God forgot. Most writers are artists: that means by definition that there is not a direct correlation between what we make and what we are paid, whether it’s music, sculpture, or a book worth reading. When a professional artist like Martel strikes it rich, it’s not because he’s the best, but because he’s very good at doing what we do and vicariously I’ll dine out on his fortune. As for those writers like the woman on Vancouver Island who candidly admits to writing as a business project or Dan Brown who markets a product with amazing success, I wish them well, the same as if they’d won the lottery or invented a widget and struck it rich. Good for them but it’s got nothing to do with me and my life.

I write mysteries, Martel writes parables. We’re both listening to the world and we hear some of the same voices, share some of the same visions. Well done, Yann. I’ll enjoy my dinner at your imagined expense.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Anthem Grammar Appalling

“True patriot love in all thy sons command.” By all means, let’s change the words to “in all of us,” but maybe we could fix the grammar in the process. No-one seems concerned but, dammit, the line, even now, should read “commands.” It is patriot love that is commanded, not the sons who command or the sons’ command. It may not sound quite so mellifluous to say, “in all thy sons commands,” but changed to “in all of us commands,” it sounds even better than the present syntactically-challenged doggerel.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Clare Hitchens, a lovely blog

Check out:


I just discovered this lovely blog by Clare Hitchens, although it was posted some time ago. What a beautiful lift on a quiet February day. She apparently works in Waterloo County, my home turf. Her first name is the same as my granddaughter's, named after the Clare family from Preston. Her welcome appreciation is not nepotism, however, since we've never met (except genetically, perhaps). In any case, I'll quote a few lines:

Recently I’ve been exploring Dundurn’s great collection of Canadian mysteries. ... How lucky we are that John Moss has turned his brilliant academic mind to writing mysteries. His Miranda Quin and David Morgan of the Toronto Police service are a different breed of detectives. Intellectual and culturally sophisticated, they wrestle with both existential problems and their feelings for each other. Their adventures take them through the streets of Toronto and into the wilds of rural southern Ontario. Moss has written two titles so far (Still Waters and Grave Doubts) and I hope there will be many more.

Friday, February 19, 2010

That Is NOT Who!

Eric Duhatschek, Globe and Mail, February 18, 2010:

"Hiller, the Anaheim Ducks' goaltender that made J.S. Giguere expendable, is a tall, fluid lefthander that many of the Western Conference-based players on Team Canada see frequently."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dr. That and the Death of Who

I have just deleted my extensive collection pertaining to ‘that,’ the usurper. ‘Who’ as a relative pronoun is dead. I’ve been gathering the most egregious examples of its passing for the last few weeks. This morning, however, the ever-fastidious Russell Smith gives ‘that’ his imprimatur in a Globe and Mail column about asking guests to pitch in with dinner. If Smith has gone over, then my list of CBC newswriters, Maclean’s scribes, and scripted politicians is redundant. In the abject spirit of surrender, I quote Mr. Smith: “The separate kitchen is really only useful for those with servants that can cook and bring out food …” I can hear my mother whispering urgently from the celestial wings, “who, who, who, Mr. Smith.” Russell Smith is a brilliant short story writer and, as Inger Ash Wolfe, an intriguing mystery novelist. If ‘that’ is good enough for him, then ‘who’ must be laid to rest with my mother’s other obsessions about the abuses of ‘I’ as an object and the pluralization of ‘there’s.’ Who am I to disagree? Or, should it be, “that’s me who disagrees,” Mom? There’s two choices, eh. And no, it shouldn't be "the Death of Whom" in my title!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Everybody Drinks, Nobody Thinks

A reviewer paid me a gratifying compliment recently by suggesting the relationship between Miranda and Morgan in my mysteries is akin to Hammett's Nick and Nora in “The Thin Man” series. It turns out there isn't a series, just one novel stretched beyond recognition in a succession of movies. Like Hammett's best known work, The Maltese Falcon (1930), The Thin Man (1934) is familiar as a cultural icon, but I had never read either so I thought I'd give them a try.

Dashiell Hammett's characters are "louche." I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence because it feels right, but I had to look it up to be sure it meant "appealingly decadent." Everybody drinks. Nobody thinks. They smoke. They sleep in late, and around, with a dismaying lack of vigour. The men are effete, the tough guys included. They giggle about getting tight and they gossip. Women are girls, the bright ones like baubles. The obsessive use of slang mires the plots in another era and threatens to asphyxiate them.

Hammett captured or even helped to create the zeitgeist of his time. Times change and his writing seems louche. It's worth remembering how profoundly important Hammett is in the history of the mystery genre, especially its American version. We owe him, readers and writers, alike. But that doesn’t mean we have to read him: there are so many writers out there, so many recent novels worth reading. Unlike the canonical ‘literary’ texts, the foundational works in genre writing aren’t essential reading to appreciate what’s being written now.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Judging the Judges

One of the mysteries that has interested me most over the years has been the absurd and elusive criteria for selecting judges for book awards in this country. Thomas Hodd has written a superb essay, published in The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, January 5th, in which he boldly argues just this. Check it out.


Before taking up writing mysteries as a suitable vocation for a retiring fellow like myself, I taught Canadian literature for decades and toiled in academe as a literary critic. I was in the business of exercising taste and judgement to illuminate literary quality. There are scholars and there are critics: scholars don’t judge but critics do.

There are critics and reviewers. Reviewers express opinions. Critics make judgements based on an informed sensibility and educated imagination. Some reviewers are good critics, some critics are good reviewers. Critics are accountable, at least to themselves. That’s why they make good judges.

I have yet to see a literary critic, whose life work is grounded in cultural and literary context, on the list of Giller judges or Governor General’s Award judges. Instead, we have writers, their friends, and apparently ‘representative’ readers. If you traced the connections among winners and judges over the years, you might be appalled, or at least embarrassed. If you interviewed representative readers, and asked for their criteria, apart from the fact that they read quite a bit, or about the depth of their knowledge or the breadth of their critical awareness, you’d generally feel insulted.

Consider the recent bleating of Victoria Glendinning. How is this person in any way qualified to make an informed and educated judgement when she is neither informed nor educated in relation to the works being judged (see my blog below re Glendinning).

Consider Justin Trudeau a few years back, championing Wayne Johnston on “Canada Reads,” capitulating to the spokesperson for Hubert Aquin. Why? For political expediency. I doubt Trudeau had read Prochain Episode. I’m bloody well sure, listening to him, he didn’t understand it either as a work of literature or for its anarchist political exhortations.

Isn’t it about time the experts were called in. Writers are the worst of all possible judges. If they could explain what it is about art that makes it work, they’d be essayists. If they knew their own minds, they’d probably be lawyers. If they exercised good taste and judgement they’d be teachers. Do you want brain surgery done by someone who has had deep thoughts, someone who has had numerous cranial invasions, or by a trained surgeon?

Gloria Glendinning, How Quaint

I'm re-posting this from early October. It seems to have been dumped (gremlins, not censorship), and my blog later today will refer back to it:

It is irritating enough to endure the condescension of a British writer who knows virtually nothing about Canadian culture, but when that writer is Victoria Glenndining, a novelist, biographer, and critic of note, who otherwise commands considerable respect, it is sad. She was, after all, educated at Oxford and many of us weren’t. For those not up on the international furor, Glendinning recently served on the Giller Prize jury and subsequently, in The Financial Times, September 12, showed clearly why she should have graciously declined. As a mystery writer, I don’t expect ever to be subject to her judgement, literary or otherwise. As an ex-critic specializing in Canadian literature, a cultural theorist of modest achievement, and the author of several obscure books of postmodern metafiction, written while I was still harbouring “literary” pretentions, I am indifferent to the whingeing twaddle of a disaffected elderly twit. But, I really do resent stupidity, especially when I as a Canadian am its victim. Ignorance is one thing but an utter absence of civility and common sense is another. It is abusive.

Glendinning thinks we use funny words like “eavestrough” and “toque, “ and we sit in funny devices we have the temerity to call Muskoka chairs (pause for laughter). Our writers write about “families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.” The Americans, who are, of course, exactly like us, “do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents.” We have a tendency to author “unbelievably dreadful” novels, many of which come from, and worse still, are set in, funny sounding places like “Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsided, and they proliferate.” (Damned profligate Canadians!) “If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.”

And if you know nothing about Canadian cultural history but still want to comment on it, you may get your graceless tripe published in The Financial Times. Apparently all it takes is a degree from Oxford and a reputation of sorts.