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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

Crime Fiction Virtual Round-Table

We talk with Wayne Arthurson, Steve Burrows, Hilary Davidson, Dieter Kalteis, Ausma Zehanant Khan, Suzanne Kingsmill, Janice MacDonald, and R.J. McMillen.

Book Cover A Language of Secrets

What happens when you gather eight of Canada's most exciting authors of crime and detective fiction to take the pulse of Canadian crime fiction today? Among the discussion topics: Is CanCrime a genre and how do we define it? What writers served as literary inspirations? How is one affected by writing about violence and brutality? And so much more, including the authors' answers to the essential question: What books are you excited about right now? Our participants' enthusiasm for books and literature is palpable and will no doubt spread like, well, a crime wave. 


49th Shelf: In 2014, we talked to critic Sarah Weinman about the possibility of “CanCrime,”—the notion that Canadian crime fiction might be a genre unto itself. Sarah had theories on the subject, but she hadn’t developed them entirely. What are your thoughts?

Hilary Davidson: That’s such a tough thing to quantify, and my answer is going to be based on—and biased by!—the authors I’ve read (there are many I haven’t read yet). But to me, CanCrime explores grey areas. It’s not about easily identifiable villains and heroes; there’s more shading and nuance. There’s a lot of thought given to the psychological life of all the characters. I know Sarah mentioned empathy, and I think that’s part of it. There’s nothing interesting about white-hatted heroes and black-hatted villains; CanCrime fiction explores psychological damage and how that plays out in the world.

Janice MacDonald: Stemming from my earlier studies for my master's thesis, in which I studied the development and growth of detective fiction (Parody and Detective Fiction, University of Alberta, 1987), I believe Canadian crime fiction sits in the middle ground between the American hard-boiled world of social realism and the British golden-age works of community consciousness. Ours is a “kinder, gentler” world, not because we are more timid or better people, but because our national consciousness was developed in a much different way than that of the US.

Many years ago, when I reviewed crime fiction on a regular basis for the Edmonton Journal, I interviewed Eric Wright, one of the true old-guard Canadian crime writers. His sense was that in the US, where so many people stayed pretty close to their roots, not travelling much or knowing people from all over (this was before, of course, the proliferation of the Internet), a crime writer could write with wild abandon about violence in mythic cities like New York or LA, where most of their readers had never been. In Canada, though, everyone has an aunt or a cousin or an old university roommate living in Regina or Moncton or Victoria, and they’re not going to believe you if you set some huge gang war on the mean streets of Sudbury.

Until recently, we had very few handguns being waved around, which made a difference to our literary vision, as did the lack of overt corruption in our police forces.

Crime fiction is the conscience of a society, I believe. In the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers envisioned it as a modern day morality play, I feel that I am taking a country’s pulse when I read crime fiction from Scotland or Sweden or Mexico or Canada.

Crime fiction is the conscience of a society, I believe. In the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers envisioned it as a modern day morality play, I feel that I am taking a country’s pulse when I read crime fiction from Scotland or Sweden or Mexico or Canada.

So, while not a genre unto itself (there are, for instance, cozy-styled mysteries in the States and quite dark thrillers in Canada), I think it’s possible to see Canada as wrestling with social realism within a more collective sensibility, instead of playing to the sense of the individual. After all, we are after peace and good government ... we don’t expect happiness.

One thing I would quibble with is Weinman's list of the old guard in Canadian mystery fiction. To me, that list should be Howard Engel, Eric Wright, L.R. Wright, Ted Wood, Lawrence Gough, John Lawrence Reynolds, and William Deverell.

R.J. McMillen: I think that Canadian crime fiction is generally more introspective than, for example, US crime fiction which, at least currently, tends to put more emphasis on a fast plot than a complex character. While we certainly have our more literary crime writers (Louise Penny for example), I think a large percentage of Canadian crime writers in every mystery sub-genre have developed strong characters and placed them in a social and/or a political setting that not only resonates with the reader but speaks to the human condition. And as David Rotenberg, another excellent Canadian crime writer, pointed out in a recent article, "The Brits and Scandinavians are less interested in social context than we are." 

Wayne Arthurson: I think it’s a losing proposition to try to define what makes a crime book Canadian. Our country is vast and diverse, and our crime writing, all our fiction, is also quite diverse. Maybe there’s a lack of guns, more empathy, but sometimes there are guns and there is no empathy in characters. Weather and geography can play a role but I’ve read novels from other countries in which weather and geography are very important. I’m not sure it’s really necessary to try to define what makes a crime novel Canadian outside the writer being Canadian.

Steve Burrows: I haven’t considered this idea at length, but I suspect a CanCrime literary identity can only come about through a grouping of its practitioners. I’m not sure I could pinpoint an identifiably Canadian approach to crime writing. It may develop, as Canadian writers retreat from the mainstream approach and explore more underlying themes, but at the moment, most Canadian crime writers I know stay fairly close to the core of established crime writing. I don’t think enough commonalities have appeared between them yet to justify a CanCrime genre.

Suzanne Kingsmill: Is there really enough of a difference between Canadian and other mysteries to start talking about a genre unto itself? Maybe a sub-genre, under the genre of Mysteries, in that Canadian mysteries are usually set in Canada where the setting is often a character in itself—but would that really qualify?

Dieter Kalteis: Tartan Noir, Emerald Crime, Nordic Noir—why not CanCrime? There are a number of authors, both new and established, that we could add to the list of Canadian talent that Sarah started a couple of years ago. Great voices writing everything from cozies to hardcore noir, offering up a Canadian perspective, with stories set from one end of the country to the other. 

 Tartan Noir, Emerald Crime, Nordic Noir—why not CanCrime?

49th Shelf: Who are your own literary foremothers and fathers in terms of crime fiction (and not necessarily Canadian)? Who inspired you to get into the game?  And outside the genre too—who are the writers who inspire you there?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I was really influenced by Ngaio Marsh as a crime writer, particularly in terms of her gift with language, and the idea that a crime novel could be literary in its expression. Her introduction of theatre settings and her insightful discussion of Shakespeare's plays made such a strong impression on me as to possible directions for a mystery novel. But in terms of character development and atmosphere, I'm a huge fan of Reginald Hill—he was literary, brilliant and punchy at the same time, with fantastic plot construction. I also love Louise Penny, Deborah Crombie, Attica Locke, Laura Joh Rowland, Ovidia Yu, Barbara Nadel, Alan Bradley—it's a long list.

Outside of crime fiction, I like writers who bring marginalized voices to the forefront of their books, or who tell stories with riveting historical settings. So I love Amin Maalouf, Orhan Pamuk, Chris Bohjalian, Laila Lalami, Firoozeh Dumas, Amy Tan, Saladin Ahmed. And the quiet books that are unexpectedly profound like Melany Neilson's The Persia Cafe.

Steve Burrows: I learned from Henry Fielding that you don’t necessarily have to choose between writing well and writing for entertainment. The Grand-Dames of Mystery, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, showed me the importance of creating well-defined characters. A well-drawn minor character can illuminate even the shortest scene. Alexander McCall Smith showed that there is still room in a crowded mystery field for new perspectives, and John Le Carre taught me the value of the slow-reveal. Set a story up properly and the reader will be content to wait for the resolution.

Wayne Arthurson: I was inspired by all the authors I've read since I was a kid, especially those who wrote terrible books and made me think, “I can do better than that.” I’m also inspired by authors, be it crime or otherwise, who turn genre and convention on its ear, like Donald Westlake in The Ax, Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jonathan Lethem in Motherless Brooklyn, or A. L. Martinez did in The Automatic Detective. There are a more on this list. I also like writers to show me a place I’ve never been or one that I’ve have, and through their characters, tell a totally unique story. Like Walter Mosely, Naomo Hirahari, Giles Blunt, even Howard Engel.

Janice MacDonald: Sara Paretsky, Carolyn Heilbrun (Amanda Cross) and P.D. James were instrumental in allowing me to think I could write mystery fiction, which I don’t think I planned to do prior to my grad studies of the genre.

I was sort of egged on by some fellow grad students who were likely disgruntled that I could sit there reading Raymond Chandler while they were lugging Chaucer about. Howard Engel was very generous with time and advice when I was just getting started, and I had some lovely telephone conversations with him. Then I met and interviewed Bunny Wright (L.R. Wright) and she painted it as a nationalistic urge, to write crime fiction NOT set in some undetermined mid-west city. She went to bat for her character using Canadian terms in her books, and so have I (chesterfield, loonie, Stanfields, oh my!).

I met and interviewed Bunny Wright (L.R. Wright) and she painted it as a nationalistic urge, to write crime fiction NOT set in some undetermined mid-west city. She went to bat for her character using Canadian terms in her books, and so have I (chesterfield, loonie, Stanfields, oh my!).

And I suppose, having cut my teeth on Trixie Belden books, she is always somewhere at the back of things when I play around in mystery fiction.

As for inspiring writers from outside the genre, I love reading Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Helene Hanff, Maeve Binchey, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Laurence, John Irving, Herman Wowk, Thomas Pynchon, Samuel Beckett, Jasper Fforde ... anyone with a conscience and a sense of humour.

Suzanne Kingsmill: I took in the writing life by osmosis with no one author pointing the way. They all did, from the classics to murder mysteries. My first experience with crime was Agatha Christie and Wilkie Collins and later Eric Wright, Howard Engel, Dick Francis, and Sam Llewellyn, all of who showed me the key elements of a good mystery. I banked that knowledge for many years before starting to write mysteries.

Dieter Kalteis: I’ve been reading crime novels since I was in my teens. Elmore Leonard had this terrific voice along with that touch of dark humour. He wrote flawed, yet very real characters that I found I could identify with. George V. Higgins wrote some of the best dialogue ever put on a page, and Robert B. Parker, Jack Higgins and Donald E. Westlake all set a pace to their stories that kept me turning pages for years to come. For present-day authors, I find inspiration in anything written by Don Winslow, James Crumley, Charlie Huston, Carl Hiaasen, and Robert Crais. 

For Canadian writers, I really enjoy reading William Deverell and the late Marc Strange, and I don’t think you can beat John McFetridge. In fact, it was after reading John’s Toronto novels that I submitted my first novel to his publisher ECW Press, which is now my publisher as well.

Outside the genre, I love anything written by Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck—just some awesome voices.

Hilary Davidson: I joke about Nancy Drew books being my gateway drug to crime, but it’s true. I was bitten by the mystery bug early, and my love of the genre was fed by novels and also by noir movies of the 1930s and 40s. Early on, I was inspired by Ross Macdonald, Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, Sara Paretsky, and Walter Mosley, and by Barbara Stanwyck’s films. Margaret Atwood is never called a crime writer, but some of her books, like Alias Grace and The Robber Bride, are great crime novels, and she’s been a huge influence. Lately, I’ve been reading novels by Dorothy L. Hughes and Margaret Millar, who were writing in the middle of the twentieth century, and I’m amazed how fresh and contemporary their work feels. I’m also a huge fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, Donna Tartt, Patrick de Witt, and Emma Donoghue.

R.J. McMillen: In terms of crime fiction, Paul Mann with his Sansi series set in India was, and still is, a wonderful inspiration. Eliot Pattison's series set in Tibet and featuring Shan, the disgraced Chinese inspector, still resonates and I find myself re-reading it every now and then. Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke have both contributed a large number of the books on my bookshelf, but Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, John Sandford, Ian Rankin, Kathy Reichs—even Lee Child—are all well represented. In terms of other genres, Camilla Gibb, Richard Wagamese, Linda Holeman, Ann Michaels, Thomas King, Roberta Rich, Luis Urrea, Alice Munro—there are so many wonderful writers out there. My problem is finding the time to read them all!

49th Shelf: Regarding the literary novel as a genre itself, what makes it distinct from a crime novel or a mystery novel? And in what ways do the distinctions between the two blur?

Suzanne Kingsmill: In my experience a literary novel is always character-driven and full of prose description. The plot is important, but secondary. With mystery novels the plot is paramount. The two blur when a murder mystery is written that is partly character driven, as in Louise Penny’s books.

Dieter Kalteis: I find the literary novel is more character-driven and tends to look at social commentary, exploring the human condition and dealing more with themes than with plots. The crime novel focuses more on some aspect of what threatens the fabric of society. While one is considered high art, the other is popular art, both are simply aimed at different types of readers. I suppose the distinctions blur when the crime novel has literary merit, offering deeper characterization, and the line blurs even more depending on the degree of the crime committed. 

R.J. McMillen: Every novel is a kind of mystery: after all we wouldn't read it if we knew how it would end! Every novel also has an interesting and complex protagonist, but while the literary novel places its emphasis on the lives of its characters, the crime or mystery novel puts the emphasis on solving a crime. That being said, the distinctions between the two blur when both the main protagonist in a mystery novel and the socioeconomic setting he/she is placed in is finely and richly drawn. I think P.D. James blurred the lines, as has Louise Penny. 

Every novel is a kind of mystery: after all we wouldn't read it if we knew how it would end!

Book Cover Another Margaret

Janice MacDonald: I don’t actually think about “literary novels” as anything, except perhaps time-tested classics on a list for a course syllabus. Heaven help the novelist who sets out to be “literary,” for that way lies archness. My term to define new books that get lumped into this category is what we used to call it: mainstream fiction.

Mystery fiction is distinct as a genre in that it has an implicit contract with the reader that it will entertain and provide closure. It may also harangue and teach and philosophize along the way, but it has to abide within its rules.

Mainstream fiction is a much looser thing. It can offer a snapshot of a time without closure, it can deliver specific lives on microscope slides, it can insert made up characters into historical annals to offer a sense of the past to readers.

Oftentimes I equate writing mystery fiction with crafting a sonnet. You have prescribed rules and you must remain constrained by them, and yet you have to find a way to deliver something of value and something new and exciting. Done well, it’s far superior to free verse, where you just have to remove non-essential words and play about with lower case fonts. Great formula work is like when top athletes take on opponents with an arm tied behind their backs—the challenge is self-imposed.

Sometimes you can hear the tortured rhyme of a sonnet and realize the writer is still going “da da, da da, da da, da da” in his head. When you don’t hear that, when it reads like silk, like every word springs naturally from the last, and every action seemingly inevitable, that’s when the lines blur.

Wayne Arthurson: All genres have their tropes, their styles, their distinguishing characteristics, and their similarities with other genres. I pretty much read all genres and what I look for is a great story with great characters, which is available in all. Making comparisons between various genres seems like a pointless exercise because sometimes it can devolve into explaining why one is better or why one should have more respect than the other.

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I find there are many writers who are writing what I consider literary mysteries; Reginald Hill's Arms and the Women, and Dialogues of the Dead are perfect examples of this. Or Kate Morton's The House at Riverton. Where the distinctions blur is that many literary novels have a mystery at their heart—not procedurally, but as a secret that must be uncovered—or in terms of building continuous suspense. And with many contemporary mystery writers, the character development is so rich and deep that the books don't really depend on the conventions of the form. One that comes immediately to mind is Peter May's blockbuster novel The Blackhouse. It could take its place beside any literary novel—the storytelling is superb.

... with many contemporary mystery writers, the character development is so rich and deep that the books don't really depend on the conventions of the form.

Hilary Davidson: I’m such a cynic on this topic! I think the main difference comes down to marketing more than anything. I’ve seen crime writers—such as Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott—move from being labelled “crime novelists” to “literary novelists,” and it’s not because their writing has changed or because they’re exploring different themes. Crime fiction is an incredibly broad genre, with writers exploring different stratas of society, eras in history, and social problems. I’d argue that Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a crime novel written from the point of view (spoiler alert) of people who are being farmed for body parts. Bleak House by Charles Dickens is a great crime novel. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton (literary), and The Grifters, by Jim Thompson (crime), share the same DNA.  

The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton (literary), and The Grifters, by Jim Thompson (crime), share the same DNA.

Steve Burrows:  I have always been uneasy with the idea that the two genres are mutually exclusive. I believe there is plenty of scope in a crime or mystery novel to explore the larger questions about the world and our place in it. Similarly, a story that explores the inner person is in itself investigating a mystery—and in some cases, perhaps even a crime! 

Book Cover Blood Red Summer

49th Shelf: How do you deal with writing about violence and other forms of brutality? Does being immersed in worlds soaked with these ever affect you in negative ways? Or can it be a positive thing, helping you to work through big questions and face the world’s more sordid realities?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I don't like writing about or describing violence—it feels like a psychic injury to me, and the violence isn't what I find compelling in the genre. So I avoid books that are graphic or too intense, forensically speaking. Having said that, The Unquiet Dead depicted many instances of the horrifying violence of the Bosnian genocide. Where it's central to the story being told and where it makes both writer and reader understand the moral force of the story, describing brutality can be necessary. I don't know that it's ever a positive thing, but coming from a human rights background, I think it's important to look squarely at issues of injustice around the world, and to understand the personal impact they have. These are deeply sorrowful things to write about, but to me, they're also urgent and necessary.

Wayne Arthurson: I deal with writing about violence by trying to make it real as possible (for the most part) without being too exploitive. When any of my characters gets in a fight (or gets beat up, which happens more often), it’s not a wonderfully choreographed situation where they can defeat five assailants in four seconds without feeling any aftereffects. If my character punches someone, they are going to feel it, be it through a split knuckle or a muscle injury. Same if they get beat up. And in both cases, their injuries won’t magically go away the next day, these injuries will linger for awhile, the way all injuries do.

Because of the points of views I use in my novels, you rarely see the main victim getting killed, just the aftereffects. And you’ll never see me write scenes from a serial killer’s point of view.

R.J. McMillen: I'm not sure that either of those options plays a bigger part in my life than they do for anyone who watches the news on television and is exposed, on an almost daily basis, to incredible brutality. We are all immersed in a world soaked with violence. While it may be true that I deliberately create a scenario that involves violent crime, that to me is almost academic. What interests and involves me more is the psyche of the killer, and the event or situation that triggered his or her actions. That and the challenging path that my protagonist, Dan Connor, will have to take in order to figure everything out. Both I and most of the "crime" writers I know, focus on the characters more than the crime itself.

Suzanne Kingsmill: I stay away from anything sick—as in repugnant, repulsive, revolting—because it would haunt me. My victims do not die slowly, are not dismembered, and do not have anything sick done to them and I usually don’t dwell on the death in graphic detail. Death is always a part of a murder mystery and it’s a challenge to write about it without being affected in some way. But it is, after all, a fictional character and a fictional death and as such there is always a built-in safety valve—see my answer to the next question. 

Steve Burrows: My own stories tend to gloss over the more graphic elements of a killing and concentrate on the process of finding the killer. I think this has caused me to look more closely at the circumstances and triggers that might lead someone to commit murder, and possibly gain some psychological insights into the human condition I might not otherwise have considered.

Hilary Davidson: It sounds horrible to admit that you immerse yourself in the dark corners of human psychology, but it’s oddly freeing. In my experience, you can’t write about violence and brutality without a certain amount of empathy. That’s not to say that there aren’t sociopaths out there, but most people who get caught up in crime do so out of desperation and even curiosity. People generally think of themselves as upstanding citizens who’d never commit serious crimes, but I feel like that’s mostly because of circumstance. If you were pushed to the edge and your survival—or your family’s survival—was on the line, what would you be capable of? But the other side of that coin is that it makes me believe that most criminals can be rehabilitated. I have good friends who’ve been through serious drug addiction and jail, but they’ve come out the other side.

 It sounds horrible to admit that you immerse yourself in the dark corners of human psychology, but it’s oddly freeing.

Dieter Kalteis: The focus of my stories is not about violence or brutality. Of course, these things happen when the characters make misguided choices. I simply am an observer, letting the characters tell their own stories. And they all have a code by which they live, good and bad alike, and no one is all one thing. I don’t have to like or agree with the choices they make along the way.

That said, I often see an element of humour in the folly of the characters’ thoughts and deeds. I explore this and allow it to take shape in my stories, which might be my way of buffering the world’s more sordid realities.

Janice MacDonald: There is a fine line that has to be drawn when writing mystery fiction. You are not writing a horror novel or a thriller, where the chance of extreme violence or gore is implicit in the cover art and the genre’s track record. In mystery fiction, for instance, you should never kill a child, or you risk losing your audience. In horror novels, feel free to kill seven in the first three chapters.

Implied violence, death off scene a la Greek tragedy, is more in keeping with classic mystery fiction. That said, sometimes you have to offer enough to allow your reader access to all the facts. There was a poison-pen letter I had to create to make sure the readers knew the vileness of the threats, and that literally turned my stomach to create. Of course, that was in my second go round, Sticks and Stones. I’m a bit more inured now.

So is my family. I am constantly pointing out places where a body could likely be found or dumped, or hypothesizing on how quickly someone would bleed out if any particular task went awry, and they have got over their queasiness. One of my daughters has just got her PhD in Bioarcheology, and revels in handling old bones, delighting when there is a bit of hair still attached. I love seeing her at work. And I’m awfully good at first aid.

That said, I still cannot pick up a dead hamster.

49th Shelf: Writer Todd Babiak recently spoke a lot about how his approach to writing thrillers was affected by the murder of a member of his extended family. Have you had any such moments of illumination? What does it mean that murder is something you play with in your work while for many people it’s profoundly real? How do you account for this?

Dieter Kalteis: I’ve had people in my life who have dealt with tragedy, and it has deeply affected me. It’s a reminder of how fragile life can be. While there is murder and other violence in the stories I write, I approach it more as an observation of the insanity within our society. But, I don’t glamourize it, and there are types of violence I won’t write about and lines I won’t cross.

R.J. McMillen: My daughter is a foster parent, and recently one of her foster kids, a young man I knew well, was murdered. In 1997 one of my own sons died of a prescription drug overdose. While my son's death was obviously the most difficult and traumatic for me, it was no more real than the death of the young man my daughter had fostered: there is the same initial sense of disbelief, the horror of the loss, the incredible grief which of course was more intense with my son's passing, but there are also feelings of guilt: was there something that I could have done to prevent it from happening? I think—and hope—that I have brought all that personal experience to the character of Dan Connor, who many years later is still haunted by guilt over the murder of his wife. 

I think—and hope—that I have brought all that personal experience to the character of Dan Connor, who many years later is still haunted by guilt over the murder of his wife. 

Janice MacDonald: I had read a couple of Todd’s articles about that, and felt very sorry for his brother. I hope he doesn’t quit writing thrillers. It’s nice to have more people who are considered “real writers” in Edmonton deigning to write genre fiction, like Todd and Caterina Edwards ... maybe one of these days it will mean I too can sit at the grown-ups’ table.

For me, writing about death and violence in the scope of a story is the same as writing about love and discovery—you need to be true to the aspect you are dealing with because you’ve been entrusted with it for your readers. And while I think murder is required in the formula to make the stakes as high as possible, I don’t believe people read crime fiction for the murder itself or even the puzzle; they read for the calming possibility of closure.

While I haven’t dealt with much overt violence in my own life, I have experienced profound grief and the sense of dislocation from reality that can spin you into. Perhaps that informs my writing, I am not sure.

Steve Burrows: I try to keep in mind that I am writing "entertainments," so I don’t drill down too deeply into the psychological scarring that the families of real crimes must suffer. However, I do try to convey something of the impact the loss of a loved one in such terrible circumstances must have. On a couple of occasions, I have thought deeply about whether to include a particular situation in my fiction, knowing someone personally who has experienced something similar. 

Wayne Arthurson: Again, I try to make my situations as real as possible without being exploitive. Which is probably why you’ll never see the murder of the main victim in my books or bodies piling up as the story continues. There is violence but it usually comes after, as the protagonists tries to discover what happened. And I’m quite aware that I used the female murder victim trope for my first “crime” novel Fall From Grace. But at the same time, I was attempting to deal with the issue of MMIW, that there were many actual victims like Grace who were murdered but their cases were under-investigated or completely ignored by police because these women were indigenous. Again, it’s a fine balance between telling an exciting story that has crime and violence without being too exploitive or just treating victims of violence as plot points.

... it’s a fine balance between telling an exciting story that has crime and violence without being too exploitive or just treating victims of violence as plot points.

Book Cover Blood Always Tells

Hilary Davidson: Around the time my first standalone novel was published, I wrote an essay about how surviving an arson had changed my life. Dealing with the aftermath was painful: for a long time, I struggled with the idea that a stranger had wanted to kill me. I also suffered from bouts of PTSD that had me panicking if a stranger on the subway reached into a bag—I’d have paranoid thoughts that he was reaching for a gun. Ironically, writing about crime helped me process a lot of dark emotions I couldn’t talk about. When you’re writing about violence, you’re taking control of it and making sense of it. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in the real world, but on a page, it has to. 

Suzanne Kingsmill: Death is real for everybody. Whether it is murder, sickness, or an accident we all feel it and we all have a need to explore it. It’s a scary, unfair world out there sometimes and writing a murder mystery that sees justice done helps turn evil into good, because in a murder mystery the good guys always win.

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I still read widely in my field, and try to remain active on the issues that concern me. Though violence and loss are not personal to me, they are nonetheless profoundly real to me. The stories I'm choosing to tell through my mysteries are my way of illuminating the kind of suffering and desolation that is so often forgotten or minimized. With The Unquiet Dead, I told a story rooted in the Bosnian genocide. With The Language of Secrets, I was looking at how terrorism stigmatizes an entire faith community. With my next book (coming out in Winter 2017), I examine the plight of political prisoners in Iran. For me, it's important to ground my books in these issues, so that my novels are a continuation of the trajectory of my work.

49th Shelf: How do you know when you’re reading a terrible crime novel? What are the signs?

Steve Burrows: My name is on the cover! Seriously, since crime writers are usually dealing with variations on a long-established theme, the way the story is told is very important to me. A writer who falls back on clichéd dialogue or plot devices is probably going to make less impact on me that someone who has found new language or new ways to tell a story.   

Wayne Arthurson: When a book starts with the serial killer’s point of view, you’ve lost me. Also, if the protagonist or antagonist seem to have superhuman abilities, either with their fists, their guns, hacking, etc., I’m done. Books that use cultural, ethnic, and gender stereotypes also bore me. I also really hate it when I read a novel (or watch a movie) and there is so much collateral damage during certain scenes with innocent people being injured or killed and that never gets dealt with at all in the end. This happens more in movies than books but it’s still annoying.

Janice MacDonald: There is usually a talking cat in it. Or recipes.

Seriously, what makes me cringe is arch or cutesy dialogue. And the clues are set into the work ham-fistedly and then neon signs saying “CLUE” are placed above them. The formula overtakes the humanity of the situation. If you can see the seams, you’re in trouble. (Stop me before I get off on some tiresome sewing metaphor and my grandmother making me measure seventeen times to match stripes or patterns on the fabric. Oops.)

Book Cover Crazy Dead

Suzanne Kingsmill: A crime novel is "terrible" when it says nothing in great detail: “Pass the salt,” said Sam. “Here it is,” said Mary. Kind of boring, and it doesn’t advance the plot. Also a weak plot or a plot full of holes, stilted dialogue, purple prose, uninteresting opening, and when even a willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t work.

Ausma Zehanat Khan: If I can untangle the solution by the fourth or fifth chapter, that's never a good sign. Also, very little atmosphere, stock characters or dialogue—these are good indicators that the book is not going to appeal to me. Of course, I love beautiful writing and surprising turns of phrase—Morag Joss is a great example of a writer whose language is fresh and imaginative, Attica Locke does an amazing job of creating atmosphere—so when I don't see any of that, I'm likely to move on to another book.

R.J. McMillen: For me I think it can be one of two things: either a simplistic plot that has an undeveloped, almost token protagonist, or an overly complex plot scattered with too many obvious clues.

Dieter Kalteis: If the author’s voice isn’t to my liking, I’m quick to put the book down, usually within the first few pages. For me, signs of a terrible crime novel are the use of unnecessary descriptions that slow the pace, stilted or narrative dialogue, cliche characters and predictable story lines.

Hilary Davidson: If the villain rapes and/or kills women close to the (male) hero, mainly to cause the hero angst and motivate his hunt for the villain, I will throw that book into the trash. I’m also turned off by torture porn. Sometimes it feels like there’s a competition to top a really gross scene from another book or from a movie. Nobody needs that. If somebody sets out to shock me with their depiction of violence, it’s usually a clue that the book is underwhelming in other ways. That’s not to say that there aren’t terrific books with graphic depictions of violence; there are. But that’s rare, in my experience. 

If the villain rapes and/or kills women close to the (male) hero, mainly to cause the hero angst and motivate his hunt for the villain, I will throw that book into the trash.

49th Shelf: What are some of your favourite trends in contemporary crime fiction? And what would you like to see more of?

Book Cover Green River Falling

R.J. McMillen: I love the fact that more and more crime writers are choosing interesting settings, and are adding current issues—political, environmental, cultural—to their scripts. At least in Canada, I see us becoming more literary while still staying in the genre.

Hilary Davidson: I feel like I’m the last person with any perspective on crime-fiction trends right now—I was a judge for the Edgar Awards, and since my category was Best First Novel I literally missed reading anything else. I love psychological and domestic suspense and I hope those categories keep growing. The book that won the Best First Edgar was The Sympathizer, by Viet Tranh Ngyuen, and it also won a Pulitzer Prize; it’s about a spy caught between two worlds, two races, two identities. That’s incredibly rich territory for crime fiction to mine.

Wayne Arthurson: The best contemporary crime fiction today is not in books but on TV, in shows like Better Call Saul, Fargo, the first season of True Detective, and even the sci-fi series The Expanse, which has a noir feel to it. What I would like to see is more crime dramas being produced by Canadian TV, and not just co-produced as in the case of Fargo, but written by Canadians, maybe even based on Canadian crime novels. I am quite envious of what’s happening in the UK where it seems that every single crime novel series has a TV show based on it.

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I like male-and-female detective pairs because I love the different energy writers assign to male and female characters. There are so many different ways that dynamic can play out that it really strengthens a book. Of course, I love seeing strong female protagonists who aren't just damaged and self-sabotaging, but who are also competent and confident in their abilities.

What I would really enjoy seeing more of is greater diversity—both among crime writers, and with their characters and settings. When I go to a crime writers' convention, I shouldn't be the only person of colour in the room. The world is so diverse, so inter-mixed—and cultures are mutually influencing each other all the time. I know of several, but more books that reflect our contemporary reality would be very welcome.

When I go to a crime writers' convention, I shouldn't be the only person of colour in the room. The world is so diverse, so inter-mixed—and cultures are mutually influencing each other all the time. I know of several, but more books that reflect our contemporary reality would be very welcome.

Dieter Kalteis: One trend I would like to see more of is the use of the anti-hero. A character who’s not all one thing, and who’s ready to bend the rules in order to create a level playing field. They’re more dimensional, more believable, and generally more interesting.

Janice MacDonald: I am enjoying the arcs of time that are coming into series, which I think began with Walter Mosley. You see characters grow old, adopt progeny, lose family or friends, and still keep going. They age appropriately, unlike Hercule Poirot, who you have to remember started his Christie career already retired from the Belgian police force. He would have been something like 132 by the time Curtain took place.

It was probably Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, who progresses in each book from post-WWII toward the Watts riots, that gave me the confidence to let my own Randy Craig age realistically as she progresses through the series. While she starts out as a grad student, coming back into academe from the world of freelance writing, she is presently unabashedly middle-aged and having to deal with her lifetime aims exceeding her grasp.

I am also enjoying more historical crime novels, which are an obvious ruse to avoid cellphones and forensic evidence of contemporary times, but to me offer interesting insights into other eras.

Of course, people who can really use modern devices to good advantage, like Christopher Brookmyer, are a real treat.

Suzanne Kingsmill: If there is a "trend" toward more character-driven mysteries, that would be fun to see. 

Steve Burrows: I enjoy the ongoing experiments in narrative structure and point-of-view. I’d like to see more stories that blur the lines, leaving the reader unsure of where the moral high ground lies, or even, what represents a crime. Often, it’s far more than simply an illegal act. 

Book Cover A Cast of Falcons

49th Shelf: What are some Canadian books that you’re really excited about right now?

Suzanne Kingsmill: Although not a murder mystery one book that has stood out for me is Claire Cameron’s The Bear, which came out in 2014. The story is told through the eyes of a five-year-old child stranded in the wilderness with her two-year-old brother and a bear, who has killed their parents and is on the loose. Cameron makes it achingly believable and it is deftly written. Anything by Louise Penny.

Hilary Davidson: I’ve been diving into my TBR pile since Edgar judging wound up. I’m a huge fan of Owen Laukkanen, whose latest is The Watcher in the Wall. I loved Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, which is up for an Arthur Ellis Award. I automatically pick up everything by Andrew Pyper, Barbara Fradkin, Ian Hamilton, Jennifer Hillier, and Peter Robinson. I met Kim Thúy at the Vancouver Writers Fest in 2014, but I only read her Ru last month. I loved it. Right now I’m reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is living up to every good thing I heard about it.

Wayne Arthurson: I’m keen on reading Todd Babiak’s Son of France, Owen Laukkanen's The Watcher in the Wall, and Peggy Blair's Umbrella Man (coming out in June) But if I’m going to be truly honest in answering this question, I’m really excited about the release of my two books this year. And I’m not answering this way for self-promotion, just that it was a struggle to get anyone interested in these books and to have them finally coming out really excites me.

R.J. McMillen: Not Canadian, but I have just finished The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins and I loved it. Also The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah and Just Pretending, a wonderful collection of short stories by Lisa Bird-Wilson. I am just starting on Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson, and I think may become one of my favourites!

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I'm counting the days until Louise Penny's next release, A Great Reckoning. Outside of mysteries, I've heard  great things about Doretta Lau's collection of stories, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? I have a feeling I'll be able to relate to those stories very personally. I'm excited to read Ghalib Islam's Fire in the Unnameable Country, and to see how our thoughts may diverge on the themes he covers in his book. And high on my list is the magical Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal. I love his books and his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. Canadian fiction has never been better, and I find the more diverse it is, the richer it is.

Dieter Kalteis: Here are some of the books on my shelf waiting to be read: William Deverell’s Sing a Worried Song, Sam Wiehe’s Invisible Dead, John McFetridge’s One or the Other, Linda L Richards When Blood Lies, Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall, Linwood Barclay’s Far From True, and Marc Strange’s Woman Chased by Crows.

Steve Burrows: Other than A Cast of Falcons, you mean? I haven’t read Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal yet, so that is on my list. I am also interested in the direction Linwood Barclay has taken in Far From True. Having spent some time researching Vietnamese history myself, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, by Yasuo Thanh, sounds like an intriguing read, too.

Janice MacDonald: Well, my to-be-read pile includes the latest Heather O’Neill, Lawrence Hill, Lori Lansens (I adored Rush Home Road) and I cannot wait to crack the spine of Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness There is Light.

Or did you mean Canadian mystery fiction? I’m picking up the new Gail Bowen tomorrow. And having tea with her, too; can’t wait.


Book Cover Blood Red Summer

Wayne Arthurson is an indigenous writer, author of the award-winning and bestselling Leo Desroches series including Fall From Grace, A Killing Winter and the just released Blood Red Summer. He lives in Edmonton and is the 2016 Writer in Residence for the Edmonton Public Library.  


Book Cover A Cast of Falcons

Steve Burrows has pursued his birdwatching hobby on five continents. He is a former editor of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society Magazine and a contributing field editor for Asian Geographic. The first book in the Birder Murder Mystery series, A Siege of Bitterns, won the Crime Writers of Canada 2015 Award for Best First Novel. His latest is A Cast of Falcons. Steve lives in Oshawa, Ontario.


Book Cover Blood Always Tells

Hilary Davidson has won the Anthony Award, the Derringer Award, the Crimespree Award, and two Ellery Queen Reader’s Choice Awards. The author of 18 non-fiction books, Hilary uses her background as a travel journalist in the three novels of her Lily Moore series, setting them in places such as Peru and Mexico. Her latest is the hardboiled standalone Blood Always Tells, which led Tess Gerritsen to call Hilary “the master of plot twists.” Her short story "The Siege" is currently up for an Arthur Ellis Award and an Anthony Award. Visit her online at


Book Cover Triggerfish

Triggerfish is Dietrich Kalteis’s third novel. His debut novel, Ride the Lightning, won the bronze medal in the 2015 Independent Publisher Awards and was hailed as one of the best Vancouver crime novels. More than 40 of his short stories have been published internationally, and his screenplay, Between Jobs, was a finalist in the Los Angeles Screenplay Festival. He resides with his family in West Vancouver and is currently working on his next novel.


Book Cover A Language of Secrets

Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a PhD in International Human Rights Law and is a former adjunct law professor. She was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Colorado with her husband. The Language of Secrets is her second novel.


Book Cover Crazy Dead

Suzanne F. Kingsmill is a zoologist by training and the author of the Cordi O’Callaghan mystery series, four non-fiction books, and numerous magazine articles. She lives in Toronto. Crazy Dead is out in June. 


Book Cover Another Margaret

Janice MacDonald writes fiction and nonfiction for both children and adults. She is best known for creating amateur sleuth Miranda "Randy" Craig, who appears in the first detective series to be set in Edmonton, where Janice lives and works. Another Margaret,the latest in the series, was published in 2015. 


Book Cover Green River Falling

R.J. McMillen has spent over 30 years sailing the remote Pacific Northwest on a 36-foot sailboat she and her husband built, visiting the remote coastal communities where her family worked in the early 1900s. She is the creator of the Dan Connor mystery series, which features the occasional partnership of a semi-retired cop and a world-weary Indigenous man. Green River Falling is the third book in the series. 

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