R.J. Harlick: More Than "Good Enough"

Purple Palette for Murder is the latest title in R.J. Harlick's Meg Harris Mystery series, a perfect title to cozy up with as the weather turns cool. In this guest post, Harlick writes about why she chooses to set her books in Canada and recommends some of her favourite writers who do the same. 

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I grew up reading anything but Canadian books. The majority of novels I studied at my Toronto high school were British and American. I can only remember one Canadian novel, Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. Basically, my school training taught me that Canadian literature wasn’t good enough. When it came to reading for pleasure I focused only on those novels from afar, including "The Greats" by British, American and Russian authors. Popular fiction was either American or British. I studiously avoided the Canadian book sections in bookstores.

It wasn’t until I attended the Humber School for Writers’ summer workshop that I finally discovered that Canadian writing was indeed worth reading. Meeting real live Canadian authors, in particular my workshop leader, Nino Ricci, enticed me to spend a few of my hard-earned dollars on their books. And lo and behold, I discovered they were just as good as any books by foreign authors. I discovered I enjoyed reading about places where I had walked the streets and stories to which I could relate. Since then I have made a point of reading predominantly Canadian fiction and have never regretted my decision. Canadian novels are more than "good enough."  They can stand up against the best other countries have to offer.

Which takes me to my own writing. When I started out on this writing venture, I followed the old adage of write what you know, so with little thought placed my first Meg Harris mystery in a setting I knew well, the wilds of West Quebec. I had decided to write a murder mystery because that was the genre I enjoyed reading the most, but again primarily British and American authors. At the time, I knew of only one Canadian crime writer and that was L.R. Wright, whose BC-based series I quite enjoyed. If others existed, they were hidden away unknown to me in the back shelves of bookstores. 

Though I was very fortunate to find a Canadian publisher for my first book, Death’s Golden Whisper, I quickly learned that to earn more than a modest amount I would need access to the American market. For that I needed an American publisher. From fellow crime writers and agents, it became apparent that in order to get an American publisher the setting had to be anything other than Canadian, preferably American. I know many a Canadian crime writer who has gone down that path and is doing very well in the States with their American settings. Louise Penny is about the only Canadian crime writer I know who has successfully cracked international markets with a Canadian setting.

I decided that for me it was more important to write about my own country, so I set my Meg Harris series firmly in Canada. Since I love Canada’s Great Outdoors, I wanted my readers to experience what I love about it. While most of the books take place in the wilds of West Quebec, I have Meg travel to other Canadian wildernesses, such as Baffin Island, Haida Gwaii and most recently the Northwest Territories. I also wanted to tell stories that matter to Canadians. And since indigenous people are an integral part of our history, I decided to have an underlying native theme. In each book, in addition to the central murder plot, I explore an issue related to First Nations and Inuit people. Meg and I have journeyed through eight books with Purple Palette for Murder being the latest.

Book Cover Wishful Seeing

 Since I read predominantly murder mysteries, I will give you a list of authors I enjoy—Canadian of course, with Canadian settings.

Montreal writer, Peter Kirby’s Luc Vanier series which takes place in the mean streets of Montreal. His latest, Open Season, won the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. 

Janet Kellough’s Thaddeus Lewis series takes the reader back to the early 1800s, when the shores of Lake Ontario were rimmed with only a smattering of far flung settlements. The fifth book, Wishful Seeing, was a finalist for the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.

Another series I enjoy is Brenda Chapman’s Stonechild and Rouleau series set in Kingston Ontario. There are currently four books published, with the fifth Bleeding Darkness due out in the spring.

I can’t leave Giles Blunt off my list. I love his award-winning John Cardinal series set in a fictitious Algonquin Bay with the latest, Until the Night, receiving the Arthur Ellis Best Novel award in 2013. The first book, Forty Words for Sorrow, was turned into a intiguing TV series.

These are just four of the many crime writers currently published in Canada. For a complete list visit the website of Crime Writers of Canada www.crimewriterscanada.com and browse their database of authors. [Editor's note: Check out all the great crime writing articles on our blog too, including our Crime Writers' Round Table from last year.]

I will finish off with one last recommendation, which happens not to be a mystery series, but is a crime novel of sorts and is a novel I believe more than deserves the many awards, nominations and accolades it has received since being published in 2016. It is The Break, by Katherena Vermette.

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 26, 2017
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