Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: Open secret by Deryn Collier

This title won't be out till April, but an advance copy is making the rounds of the book club. Being in the backyard of a writer has its privileges. There is a waiting list. The waiting time will be relatively short: readers who pick up this book do not want to put it down. We all enjoyed Deryn's first novel but this one takes it to a whole new level. 

I just did a review of the first Bern Fortin novel, Enclosed Space, for Good reads. Let's start there.
The arrival of a good new mystery writer is always a cause for celebration. Drink a toast to this one, and make it a Kokanee, the popular beer out here in the Kootenays where the story takes place. 

Meet the sleuth: Bern Fortin has retired from the Canadian Armed Forces to the small town of Kootenay Landing. His past includes harrowing tours of duty in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan. In his new life he hopes to heal his soul by learning to garden, and expiate his survival guilt by bearing witness for the dead: he has a part time job as a coroner. To the job he brings a soldier's sharp instincts, as well as a struggle with PTSD. 

Bern is a wonderful character. Likeable and complex, his outsider status in a small Western town is made even more obvious by the fact that he is originally a Francophone. I enjoy the small French bits, we see too little of our second official language in the West. Like so many fictional crime solvers he has a nosy neighbour who fusses over him, the formidable Mrs K., short for Kalesnikoff. Named not for the gun but for the sawmill, a real family-owned business thriving just West of Nelson. The town may be fictional, the location is real. The description of place and local culture adds real depth to the novel. 

The story is set in a brewery. A worker has gone into a confined space by himself to fix a machine and has come to a rather horrid ending. His death is a blow to the safety manager, whose rigid protocol should have prevented the accident. Or was it an accident? Could there be a connection between the death and some games played by corporate management? Evie, the safety manager, is a nice combination of damsel in distress and fellow sleuth and a well developed secondary character. There is the usual thriller stuff with the usual surprise ending. It is well done. 

I hope this novel is the first of many.
In the second Bern Fortin novel the location plays an even greater role, as the plot takes place not in an industrial plant but in the woods, hills, fields and marshes outside of Creston, B.C. If there was any doubt about the identity of the place the border crossing into Idaho gave it away. 

We learn more about Bern's back story, and Mrs Kalesnikoff has some developments in her personal life. Other than that, and the personnel at the police station, all characters are new.

An abused preschooler who imagines herself  a figure skater.
A family whose homes are too perfect, what are they hiding?
A browbeaten husband who suffers from panic attacks. What does an old friend hold over him, to force him into crossing the border with a mysterious package? A magical cream that heals pain like nothing else. A missing daughter. All these strands hang together.

Much of the plot revolves around the area's main cash crop. No, it is not trees. Organized crime is horning in on what used to be Mom and Pop operations. These are real issues in the Kootenays.

The only weakness I find is that we really  don't care too much about who killed the obnoxious Seymour Melnychuk, who gets his face blown off (How? Why is there is no exit wound?) in the beginning. But then, Fortin himself addresses this issue towards the end. It is his job to account for the dead, without fear or prejudice. 

In a way, these novels are a work in progress. Not all loose ends are neatly tied off. You want to keep going, and find out what happens next to various people. Just like life.

Carry on Deryn, I look forward to part 3.

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