John Lawrence Reynolds on a Return to Fiction after Almost a Decade
Beach Strip is John Lawrence Reynolds' first foray back into fiction in almost a decade, and he steps back into the waters by placing the reader on a beach they won't leave for most of the book. I talked to Reynolds about what he's been doing in the meantime—there's been no shortage of writing—as well as which Canadian books evoke a strong sense of place for him as a reader.
Julie Wilson: Some of your other notable titles are all non-fiction, Free Rider, which won the National Business Book Award, as well as Bubbles, Bankers & Bailouts, and Shadow People, on secret societies. Two questions on this. One, you incorporate narrative elements into your non-fiction, such as The Naked Investor, which includes real-life anecdotes in an effort to expose the dark side of the investment industry. That sense of reveal, and casting some brokers and advisers as greedy embezzlers, these are the same tools used to create fictional characters. Was that to make financial matters more relatable to the reader?
John Lawrence Reynolds: In researching and writing Free Rider, which traced the embezzlement of millions of dollars from trusting individuals, I heard tragic stories of fraud and deception, and decided to gather several in a book, which became The Naked Investor. We can talk about the extent of white-collar crime in Canada and the devastation it creates, but it’s all academic until it occurs to you or someone you know.
When I applied my knowledge of investing garnered over years in the advertising and marketing profession to explain the ins-and-outs of these tales, I was labeled a financial writer and investment expert by media interviewers. I’m not. I’m a story-teller, something of a male Scheherazade, telling stories to stay alive.
Julie Wilson: Further to that, Beach Strip is your first mystery novel in nine years. Do you consider it a return?
John Lawrence Reynolds: I’ve spent a lot of time ghost-writing books—telling other people’s stories in other people’s voices. Much fun, very profitable, and not unsatisfying. But there was always a niggling voice saying, “When are you going to start telling your own stories?” I wanted to write a novel with a mystery built in, a mystery with a twist at the end, and a woman who, in the midst of her sexuality and dry humour, realizes that her psychiatrist boyfriend was right: She is a very moral woman trying to live an immoral life.
Julie Wilson: Your earlier books are built around Joe McGuire, a Boston cop. Conversely, Beach Strip sets itself firmly on a Southern Ontario beach for the bulk of the book, and is told through the first person perspective of Josie Marshall, the wife of a detective who turns up dead outside their home. She sets out to prove his death was murder, not suicide, and in the process finds herself at the centre of two other murders.
Where did the inspiration for this shift take place, to constrain yourself to both perspective and locale? Could you speak a bit as well about the voice of Josie? “I’d rather laugh in bad taste than cry in good taste.” Where does that voice come from?
John Lawrence Reynolds: All successful novels depend on character, setting, and plot. (The late Ray Bradbury, an early hero of mine, advised beginning writers to remember, “The plot of your novel is merely the footsteps left by your characters.”) In concocting mystery novels, sometimes the most difficult challenge is finding a unique setting or treating a familiar one in a new way. The beach strip at the western end of Lake Ontario is unique and generally unknown. It also attracts its share of characters as residents, and there is something ominous about the bridges soaring over the community, the steel mills in the distance, and the ships visiting from foreign ports.
My original idea was to build on the sinister aspect of the setting but, as frequently happens, the darn characters began taking over the story—especially Josie and her sister Tina. Josie’s origins were rooted with memories of a girl I dated as a teenager, a sweet 16-year-old who wore tight T-shirts and white shorts in summer. We would go to the “Beach Strip” on summer evenings and if an ocean or lake freighter came through the canal she would stand smiling and waving at the tough-looking sailors standing at the rail who, to her perpetual surprise, usually reacted to her appearance with a response that was less than platonic.
I don’t consciously construct primary characters from elements of people I know or have encountered. It’s not like assembling a piece of furniture from IKEA. Characters, especially protagonists, work best in a story when they are truly alive in the author’s imagination, and Josie became very real to me. I decided to tell the story from her P.O.V., which meant I needed to hear a voice as I wrote.
The voice I heard was Susan Sarandon’s, who also provided some of Josie’s physical attributes. Now I must tell you that, for a man of my age, spending two years with Susan Sarandon living inside my head was not an agonizing experience.
Julie Wilson: Josie's sleuthing reveals the underbellies of some of the local residents, a drug-addled drifter, a romantic mob boss, and one resident with a predilection for Josie's shed. Do you practice this imagination in your daily life as well?
John Lawrence Reynolds: There is always a need to avoid creating flat characters. Everyone believes they know how a mob boss might act and appear. To add realism—make him “round” instead of “flat,” if you will—I wanted to suggest he could be sensitive, that he sincerely wants to be liked and appreciated, yet still be dangerous. The man with a predilection for Josie’s garden shed is—let’s be direct—a pervert. Can you make a pervert somewhat sympathetic and avoid the stereotype? That’s what I tried to do.
Someone suggested that the most valuable asset an author can have is a good memory. I draw upon my own to justify some aspect of a character’s persona. For example, Josie’s recollection of her father’s death explains her cynical approach to life. His death, as I describe it, actually occurred at a steel plant in Hamilton, related to me by a company executive, and I recall (and admit) thinking as I heard it, “This could be an element in a book some day.” There is far more fact in fiction than the average reader comprehends.
And for the comfort of my neighbours who read my books and this interview: I do not perceive them as raw material for characters.
Julie Wilson: To include Beach Strip, you've written six mystery novels (The Man Who Murdered God and Gypsy Sins each won the Arthur Ellis Award) and you're the past president of the Crime Writers of Canada. Where do Canadian crime writers place on the world map of crime writing? And how does Canada treat its crime writers?
John Lawrence Reynolds: This country produces more than its share of gifted novelists in all genres, from Peter Robinson to Robert Sawyer to Alice Munro. The biggest challenge we face is the competition resulting from our proximity to the U.S. Readers are attracted to authors whose names they recognize. There is only so much room in the publicity pot, and by the time a Canadian author tries crawling in, it’s already crowded with Americans, given the media dominance of the U.S.
Also, traditional media outlets have been shrinking coverage of Canadian books for some time. I and other authors depend on sources such as the 49th Shelf to play the vital role of addressing Canadian books and discussing them in depth—as we are doing here. If I haven't expressed my gratitude yet: Thanks!
Julie Wilson: On locale, 49th Shelf has just launched Read Local: The 100-Mile Book Diet, an interactive map that invites readers to pin books to the map as defined by place. How did Southern Ontario inform Beach Strip? And if which Canadian--authored books speak to a similar sense of place for you as a reader?
John Lawrence Reynolds: With tongue in cheek . . . but, not too far . . . I have said that the two least-explored areas of the world are Outer Mongolia and Downtown Hamilton. The Beach Strip, like much of Hamilton, remains an Unknown Region for many Canadians. It provided me with an opportunity to take readers by the hand and say, “Let me show you something you haven’t seen before.”
As for areas of the country that speak to me with a distinctive sense of place:
- Anything by Alice Munro set in and around southwestern Ontario. She gives it a Gothic atmosphere that is at once both familiar and frightening.
- As for Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross. Yes, it’s bleak and gloomy, but that was Saskatchewan in the 1930s.
- Who Has Seen the Wind, by W.O. Mitchell. Best damn book about the Prairies, and maybe the best children’s book written by a Canadian.
- Superior–The Haunted Shore, by Bruce Litteljohn and Wayland Drew. Strange beauty and fascinating history on Lake Superior’s north shore from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay.
- Barometer Rising, by Hugh MacLennan. Nobody is likely to write a better novel set in Halifax.
About Beach Strip: On their first date, Josie told Gabe she always wanted to live on the beach strip. Little did she know the place she had longed to live would turn into a destination of despair. Beach Strip, by John Lawrence Reynolds (HarperCollins; on sale June 19; $22.99 CDN) tells the story of a place where anything can happen, and usually does.
When Josie’s detective husband, Gabe, is found naked outside their home on the beach with a bullet in his brain, everyone calls it a suicide. Josie knows it isn’t; but fears it could be, as she had certainly provided him with a motive for such a rash act. As clues are compiled, the evidence is so convincing that even Josie starts to believe that Gabe shot himself.
It takes a horrific slaying literally occurring at her feet for Josie to realize that Gabe was murdered, and her determination to prove it carries her toward the darkest corners of the beach strip she had once found so endearing. When a chance remark leads Josie to the astonishing truth of Gabe’s death, her story takes a shocking turn that no one could have seen coming.
Beach Strip, a tale of love, death, and fictional secrets of the weathered beaches of Southern Ontario is the first mystery novel in eight years from award-winning John Lawrence Reynolds.
John Lawrence Reynolds is the author of more than two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction. He has previously written six mystery novels and is a two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award (The Man Who Murdered God and Gypsy Sins). His many non-fiction books include Free Rider, which won the National Business Book Award, as well as The Naked Investor and Bubbles, Bankers & Bailouts. Shadow People, his bestselling book on secret societies, has been published in sixteen countries. A former president of the Crime Writers of Canada, John calls Burlington, Ontario home. Visit him at his online home.