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2019 Arthur Ellis Awards Winners

By 49thShelf
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The best of Canadian crime writing. The annual Arthur Ellis Awards by Crime Writers of Canada recognizes the best in mystery, crime, and suspense fiction and crime nonfiction by Canadian authors.
Though the Heavens Fall
Excerpt

 

Chapter I

 

Monty Collins

 

It was Tuesday, January 24, 1995, and Monty Collins was on assignment in Belfast. He was defending a lawsuit filed against a Canadian-owned company that had a large farm equipment factory on the outskirts of the city, and he had secured a temporary placement with a Belfast law firm by the name of Ellison Whiteside. Monty’s office was in the city centre near Queen’s Square, with a window looking out on the Gothic-style Albert Memorial Clock, which stood over one hundred feet high in the square. He did some paperwork on the farm equipment file and conferred with a couple of local clients, then left the office for lunch in the company of two fellow lawyers from Ellison Whiteside. It was their habit, and would now be his, to head over to McHughs bar, no apostrophe, for a pint and a bite to eat. Wisely, his companions had brought umbrellas for the short walk in the cold winter rain; Monty turned up the collar of his jacket and kept his head down till they reached the bar. They got the last vacant table and ordered soup, sandwiches, and pints of Guinness. It was apparent that the pub regulars had got an early start to the day. Two old fellows were having a row over the leek and potato soup, specifically about what leeks were and where they were grown.

 

“They’re in the same family as onions. And garlic.”

 

“In yer hole, they are! Where are we, Ireland or Italy?”

 

“You’re not even in Ireland!” someone declared from the bar.

 

“Those are fightin’ words, Charley. Every inch of land on this island is Ireland, and every blade of grass growin’ on it.”

 

“And every leek!” another guy chimed in. “And they’re green and white. Not a patch of orange on them at all.”

 

Soup grew cold but pints were consumed before their ideal temperature altered for the worst.

 

Monty enjoyed a few laughs with his colleagues until they departed for a meeting. He sat and finished his meal. When he was about to get up, he saw a man slide off his barstool and come towards him. He had a wild crop of white hair and stubble on his face, and he appeared to be in his late seventies.

 

“Those fellas with you were from Ellison Whiteside, am I right, sir?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“You’re new here.”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“What part of America are you from?”

 

Monty and other Canadians got that all the time. Everyone assumed they were from the United States. A very few people could discern a Canadian accent, often making the comment that it was softer than the American. Maura was recently told that hers was “sweeter.” No surprise there, Monty supposed; Cape Breton speech often sounded like a mix of Scottish and Irish. He addressed the man in McHughs and said, “I’m from Canada.”

 

“Oh, I beg your pardon. My mistake. No offence intended.”

 

“None taken.” And if offence had been taken, Monty was too much the polite Canadian to say so.

 

The man lowered his voice then. “You’re a solicitor with Ellison’s?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Well, I have a matter I’d like to discuss with you. A highly confidential matter.”

 

“I keep all my work confidential.”

 

“Very good, as it should be. And it’s good to have somebody new in town. The solicitors here have become a wee bit cynical. Worn down by all the violence, you know.”

 

“Town” sounded somewhere between “tine” and “tarn,” “bit cynical” like “but sunnacal,” “violence” like “vayalence.” Monty nodded in acknowledgement.

 

“So could I have an appointment with you? Without delay?”

 

Might as well get it over with today. “Sure, come in after lunch. Ask at the desk for me. My name is Collins, Monty Collins.”

 

“Interesting combination, sir. Sounds as if you’ve a Brit and a lad from County Cork in your family tree.”

 

“I have both; you are correct.”

 

“I’ll see you this afternoon.”

 

Monty paid for his meal and his pint and returned to his office, where he sat reading the file of a man who claimed he had tripped coming out of the loo in his local bar and had fallen on his knees. Monty could imagine how popular this man — and his solicitor — would be if they took a well-loved publican to the law over something like this. It was hardly the life-and-death legal drama he was accustomed to in the courts at home, defending clients who faced the possibility of life in prison for murder. He shook away those thoughts and started to reach for another of his files when the firm’s receptionist popped her head in the door. “Mr. Malone would like to see you, Monty.” She rolled her eyes.

 

“Sure, show him in.”

 

She mouthed the words “good luck” and went back out to reception. Then Mr. Malone, the man from McHughs, was in his doorway. He reached around and closed the door ever so quietly and sat in one of the two client chairs in front of Monty’s desk.

 

“So, Mr. Malone . . .”

 

“Hughie.”

 

“Hughie. How can I help you?”

 

“You can help blow the lid off one of the biggest cover-ups the wee statelet called ‘Northern Ireland’ has ever known!”

 

“Cover-up,” Monty repeated.

 

“A cover-up at the highest levels is what I suspect.”

 

“I see.”

 

Hughie sat there nodding his head.

 

The old cover-up story again. This was not a new experience for Monty, nor for others in his profession. In fact, in a certain kind of case, with a certain kind of client, the client typically goes through a series of lawyers as each one drops his case for lack of merit. That often results in the disgruntled client lodging a complaint with the Bar Society or commencing a lawsuit against the lawyer on completely bogus and fantastical grounds. In virtually every case, the lawyer is accused of “being in on it,” that is, being part of a conspiracy with another party or parties to the complaint, along with other lawyers, the Crown prosecutors, and the judges. It is not unusual for the CIA to crop up in these allegations and, until recently, the KGB. Sometimes aliens had a hand in things as well. These cases often resulted in the client representing himself and foisting on the courts hundreds, even thousands, of pages of the claimant’s ramblings, on everything from his conspiracy theories to his revelations on the meaning of life and the universe. The self-represented litigant. As the old saying goes, “He who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”

 

“Tell me what has you concerned,” Monty urged him, against his better judgment.

 

“In the wee hours of November the fourteenth, 1992, my niece’s husband, Eamon Flanagan that was, fell off the Ammon Road Bridge and drowned. This happened the same night, and in the same vicinity, as a fatal shooting, which has never been solved. That same dark, early morning, Eamon just happened to fall off the bridge and drown.”

 

“Why do you believe this was something other than just an unfortunate accident?”

 

“There is no justice in the artificial state known to the world as Northern Ireland.”

 

“Yes, but in this instance, what do you think really happened to this man?”

 

“He was attacked and then thrown or pushed off the bridge.”

 

“What evidence do you have of that?”

 

“If you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Collins, you sound like all the rest of them.” Signed lake all the rust o’ thum.

 

“This happened over two years ago. If things went as you believe they did, why has nothing been done before now?”

 

“Others have refused to take on the case.” Of course. That’s why he homed in on Monty, the new solicitor in town. The blow-in from away. “They’re afraid of losing their livelihood. Or worse.”

 

“That doesn’t exactly encourage me, Mr. Malone.”

 

“This statelet, this wee bastard of a political entity, is kept in place by fear. Terror from above.”

 

Monty had no desire to open that particular door, so he tried to steer the conversation back to the facts. If there were any. “What is it you know, which makes you think this was not an accident?”

 

“The injuries on the body.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Blunt force trauma to his leg and other parts of him.”

 

“And that tells you what?”

 

“That he was struck by a powerful force before he went off that bridge.”

 

“Or he suffered trauma in the fall. The structure of the bridge, perhaps, or rocks below? I don’t have the advantage of seeing the post-mortem report, so there’s nothing I can say about that.”

 

“Katie has it.”

 

“Who?”

 

“His daughter. May I send her in to see you?”

 

Every cell in Monty’s body cried out No! But, trying to stifle a sigh, he said, “Sure. Send her in.”

 

Malone nodded and stood up and left the office.

 

Monty got busy for the rest of the afternoon and put the Hughie Malone visit out of his mind. He would not hold his breath waiting for the dead man’s daughter, if there was a daughter, to make an appearance in the offices of Ellison Whiteside, solicitors, Belfast.

 

 

Monty Collins and Maura MacNeil had come to Ireland because of Monty’s work on behalf of Canadian Earth Equipment Inc., which was one of the biggest clients of his law firm in Halifax, Stratton Sommers. The lawsuit against the company had been launched by farmers and “agribusinesses” — Monty hated that word; it made him lose his appetite — who claimed that their equipment wore out prematurely because of manufacturing defects. It was a multi-million dollar claim. Canadian Earth insisted that the fault lay not with its processes but with the company that supplied the metal for the equipment. Monty’s role would be to gather evidence and statements from the vast manufacturing complex to use in its defence and in the third party claim against the metal supplier. Stratton Sommers expected him to get this done and return home by early May. The fact that he was a Queen’s Counsel at home in Nova Scotia with more than two decades of experience gave him a leg up when it came to meeting the qualifications to practise law in the North of Ireland. Monty was pleased to have been chosen for the overseas posting, but it had to be said that his partners and associates had not exactly been queuing up in the hopes of snagging this assignment. It was not Paris, not Rome, but Belfast in the midst of the Troubles. With that in the forefront of his mind, Monty had done his research; the flat he had rented was close to the university and the Botanic Gardens, a part of the city that had been spared much of the horror of the past quarter century. A ceasefire had been in place since August, but nobody knew how long it would hold.

 

He and Maura had agonized over whether she and the children should accompany him. They settled on Dublin for her and the two youngest kids, Normie and Dominic. Normie was eleven going on twelve and Dominic was three. The oldest boy, Tommy Douglas, was attending university at home in Halifax. Maura had arranged a leave of absence from her job as a professor at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, and she had been taken on as a part-time lecturer at the University College of Dublin’s law school. The family had been in Ireland before, but law courts and law books had not been part of the earlier trip.

 

Monty had spent three days in Dublin, at the little row house Maura had found on the city’s north side, before he headed north to Belfast to start work. He had leased a nifty little Renault hatchback from Burke Transport, and he left the city with assurances that the family would all be together again soon. It was a pleasant two-hour drive through rolling green fields. He was stopped at a border checkpoint, but the army — that being the British Army — did not detain him long.

 

Ellison Whiteside was a firm of solicitors specializing in civil litigation, and the arrangement was that Monty would work a few cases for the firm in addition to his work for Canadian Earth. This provided an interesting change of focus. In Halifax, he was a defence lawyer trying cases in the criminal courts. Or representing defendants and their insurance companies in civil trials, taking the position that the person claiming injury was barely hurt at all, that there was nothing wrong with the plaintiff beyond a few minor aches and pains, and that he or she was not entitled to retire from the workforce at the defendant’s expense. Now, here in Belfast, he worked mainly on the plaintiff side. Now he’d be the one claiming that the injured party would never work again, My Lord, because of the pain in his back, neck, leg, head, or little finger. He had to admit that the work wasn’t as exciting as winning acquittals in high-profile murder trials, but the sojourn in Belfast would be an adventure, he was sure.

 

There was somebody else who had a hand in this whole scheme, and that was Father Brennan Burke. The priest was practically a part of the Collins-MacNeil family now. Born in Dublin, he had a big extended family in Ireland. Although he was a frequent visitor to the country, he had always wanted to spend a longer stretch of time here. Brennan had originally intended to stay in Dublin but with prompting from some of his northern Republican relations who had never recognized the border — “It’s all Ireland, Brennan” — he decided on Belfast. That way, he said, “I can make sure that Monty will continue to receive the sacraments. And he’ll never be alone when it’s time to raise a glass after hours.” So he signed on to assist the other priests at a church in the north part of the city, and he would be staying with a cousin by the name of Ronan Burke.

 

 

Monty had made plans to go for an early pub supper with Brennan. Brennan expressed an interest in seeing Monty’s new residence, so they met there. He had the downstairs flat in a typical red-brick Victorian terrace house with projecting bay windows, on Camden Street near Queen’s University. They headed out from there, walked through the university district, and came to the shore of the River Lagan. Fortunately, the weather had changed, as it did frequently during any one day in Belfast, and the river shone in the setting sun, reflecting the flame-coloured sky above. They kept to the Lagan’s bank for a while and then turned into the streets of a neighbourhood Brennan called the Markets. A Nationalist area of brick houses with Republican murals and the green, white, and orange Irish tricolour, which would most likely be described here as green, white, and gold. People were out of their houses chatting and enjoying the late afternoon warmth. Monty and Brennan greeted them and were greeted in return.

 

They then left the residential area and found themselves on a busy street fronted by an imposing Portland stone building with columns and multi-paned windows. Monty had had a glimpse of the building on a short trip to Belfast three years earlier; it was a sight you wouldn’t forget. It was the High Court, its noble elevation marred by the enormous concrete blast wall that surrounded it. When would they be able to dismantle the wall? When would they deem it safe from car bomb attacks? Was there really a chance that peace would prevail at last?

 

“Some of our greatest buildings are those dedicated to the ideal of justice and the rule of law,” Brennan said.

 

“And rightly so,” Monty agreed. “Fiat justitia ruat caelum.”

 

“Well, we’re in a place now where justice and the rule of law have been taking a thumping for over twenty-five years.”

 

“Longer than that, I suspect.”

 

“Much longer indeed. Centuries. But you’re an officer of the courts now, Collins. You’ll put things to rights.”

 

“Yeah, with my trip and fall cases. Those are my files these days when I’m not sorting through cartons of papers from the equipment manufacturer. At least these cases won’t get me killed. Or so I would hope.”

 

“Nothing too thrilling yet, I guess?”

 

“Could be worse.”

 

He and Brennan continued on their walk, keeping an eye out for a place to enjoy some pub food for supper, and they found what they were looking for at the Garrick, a beautiful old bar with dark wood and gleaming fittings, dating back to Victorian times. As they sipped their pints and waited for their meal to be served, Monty asked, “So you’re settling in at your cousin’s place? You don’t miss rectory life and Mrs. Kelly?” Mrs. Kelly was the priests’ housekeeper in Halifax. A nervous, fussy woman, she made no secret of her disapproval of Father Burke for reasons too numerous to mention.

 

“I imagine the screws in the Crumlin jail would be easier to take than Mrs. Kelly,” he said. “But all that aside, it’s lovely staying at Ronan and Gráinne’s. Plenty of room. Aideen’s the youngest; she’s at university in Galway. Tomás is about to be married and is living just around the corner, so he calls in for visits. Lorcan is rooming with some other lads in a flat off the Falls Road. I’ve a nice, comfortable room upstairs at Ronan’s, so it’s grand.”

 

“I understand Ronan works for Burke Transport, northern division?”

 

“He does. Part-time, a few mornings a week. He used to run it but he was, well, away for a stretch of time. Or two.”

 

“I see.”

 

“So somebody else runs the place and he’s there about half the time. His son Tomás is full-time, though. Does the books. Studied business and accounting, all that, in college. But Ronan wouldn’t be able to devote all his time to the transport operation anyway. He has other activities that are taking up his energies.”

 

“His name pops up frequently in the news.”

 

“He’s in the thick of things with the ceasefire and with some extremely delicate machinations that are going on, to try and get a peace agreement.”

 

“Good luck to him.”

 

“He’ll be needing it. To the Unionists, any accommodation with us papists is a surrender. And one of their mottos, as you’ve seen on the murals, is ‘No Surrender!’”

 

“Unionist,” Monty knew, meant union with the United Kingdom, not with the rest of Ireland.

 

“They are already calling the process a sell-out. Sull-ite. But they can’t have been sold too far down the river, because the Republicans are calling it a sell-out, too. Or they assume it will be, from what they’ve heard to this point. So you can imagine the rocky road ahead of the fellas trying to strike a deal. Here’s Ronan, with the best intentions in the world, and he’s getting as much resistance from his own people as he is from their age-old enemies.”

 

“He’d better watch his back,” Monty remarked.

 

“God bless him and keep him.”

 

It was a familiar phrase, uttered frequently and without much thought. Not this time. Father Brennan Burke had the look of a very worried man.

 

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Why it's on the list ...
Winner: Best Crime Novel
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Cobra Clutch
Excerpt

ONE

"Some asshole kidnapped my snake."

"That sounds like a hell of a case."

"I'm serious, man."

"So am I."

"You don't believe me?"

"Not really, no."

"I thought you would. That's why I came to you."

"Just so I'm clear, by 'kidnapped' you mean someone actually stole your pet snake?"

"Yes. And her name is Ginger."

"The snake or the kidnapper?"

"The snake."

"Are you sure Ginger didn't, like, slither off somewhere?"

"I'm sure."

"Seriously, who put you up to this?"

"I can't believe you think this is a joke."

"It was my cousin, wasn't it?"

"You know what? Forget it."

I took another sip of my banana milkshake and glanced around the Dairy Queen in search of an accomplice.

"You're videotaping this, right? Declan wouldn't go to all this trouble and not get this on camera."

Johnny slammed his fist down on the table.

"Damn it, Jed! I'm not fucking around here!"

"All right, take it easy. I believe you."

"About goddamn time."

"You have to admit, it's not the easiest sell. I'm also not sure which is more disturbing - the fact that someone went to the trouble of kidnapping your pet snake or that you actually named a reptile after a Spice Girl."

My old friend smirked despite himself.

"You're an even bigger smart-ass than I remember."

"Fair enough. Now why don't you take me through this thing from the top?"

Johnny plucked a crinkled photo out of his wallet and handed it to me. In the picture he was leaning against the turnbuckle of a professional wrestling ring with a yellow python with brown patches draped over his shoulders.

"That's my baby," he said.

"I can see the resemblance."

"Huh?"

I pointed at the tattoo of a yellowish-brown python spiraling around one of his sinewy forearms.

"Oh, yeah. I got inked for Ginger's birthday a few months back. I've had her for nearly three years now, Jed. I make my entrances with her around my neck and keep her ringside during my matches and everything. I can't wrestle without her."

"Any idea why someone would want to take your snake?" I asked, handing back the photo.

"Christ, I don't know. You're the private investigator."

"I'm a bouncer, Johnny. Not a PI."

"That's not what I've heard."

"My old man is the one with the license. I just help him with some of the leg work from time to time."

"So do some leg work for me now and help me get Ginger back. You should have seen the cops this morning, man. They laughed at me while I filled out the theft report."

"I'm sorry, bub," I replied earnestly. "I can't help you."

Johnny gripped my forearm as I stood.

"Baton Rouge, man."

My heart skipped a beat.

"That was a long time ago, Johnny."

"You owe me."

"You sure you want to play this card?"

"I am. I got nowhere else to go."

I took a deep breath, my mind scrambling to find an alternative solution.

"I know some excellent private investigators. Why don't I give you some referrals?"

"So they can laugh at me too? No. I want you."

I sat back down. Johnny let out a huge sigh.

"Thank you, Jed. Thank you so much."

I sucked back on my milkshake until the straw made a slurping sound. Some people complain about Dairy Queen and say they don't make quality shakes. I say that's bull. They're the only place that mixes their syrup with real bananas and that makes all the difference in my book.

I set aside my frosty treat and looked at my old friend. It had been a long time since I had last seen Johnny Mamba. Instead of the buff young wrestler I remembered, he now looked nearly a decade older than his thirty-six years. Although still muscular, he'd lost a lot of mass and his skin now appeared more loose and leathery than tight and tanned. Crow's feet had crept their way around his eyes and his hairline had started to recede. The years he'd spent punishing his body on the professional wrestling circuit had definitely taken their toll.

"Let me see that picture again," I said finally.

Johnny slid the photo across the table.

"Can I have this?"

"No way," he said, snatching it out of my hands.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. Johnny clued in and placed the photo flat on the table so I could snap a pic.

"Good enough. Now tell me about the, uh ... abduction."

"It was after practice last night. I left her in a sack in the locker room while I showered like I always do. When I came out she was gone."

"How long was your shower?"

"Five minutes or so."

"Who else was there?"

"Nobody. I usually stick around after practice and work with the rookies so I'm always the last to leave."

"Johnny, if this really is a kidnapping then you would have received a ransom note."

Johnny produced a crinkled print out of an email from his web mail account.

It read:

From: thesteelcrab@ymail.com

To: gingerlover69@hotmail.com

Date: August 12, 2011, 10:57 AM PDT (CA)

Subject: PAYMENT

Ten thousand dollars or you never see the snake again. You have three days to get the money.

Johnny stared at me with saucer plate eyes.

"What do you think?"

"I need you to forward me a copy of this. You still have my email?"

Johnny nodded.

"What about thesteelcrab@ymail.com? Does that mean anything to you?"

"No."

"I find it curious the kidnapper would send you a ransom note via email, but I guess that might explain why you were given three days to secure the funds instead of one."

"How so?"

"I doubt they would know how often you check your email and they had to ensure they gave you ample time to receive the message. Any idea how the kidnapper got your address?"

"Every wrestler's email is posted on the XCCW website."

"XCCW?"

"X-Treme Canadian Championship Wrestling. Fastest growing professional wrestling promotion on the west coast."

"I've never heard of them."

"It's a great circuit. Quality talent, awesome schedule, lots of exposure. You ever thought about a comeback? XCCW would be the perfect place for you to - "

I silenced Johnny with a glare.

"I was just throwing it out there," he said quietly.

I let it go and tapped my finger on the print out.

"No offense, Johnny, but why would someone in their right mind expect you to pay ten thousand dollars for a pet? Couldn't you just buy another snake for a fraction of that amount?"

"I love her, man. I'd pay anything."

"Odds are whoever took Ginger knew that."

"What are you saying? That the son of a bitch who took Ginger knows me?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm saying. Do you have any enemies? Anybody that would want to hurt you?"

"No way, man."

"Anybody at XCCW?"

"Are you kidding? I'm like Tom Cruise at a Scientology convention at that place."

"How about the money? Can you afford to pay the ransom?"

"I got some coin squirreled away for a rainy day."

"And how many people are aware of that fact?"

Johnny shrugged, tucking his long hair behind his ears.

"A bunch, I guess. My Nana died a few months back and left me about twenty grand."

"You never played connect the dots much when you were a kid, did you, Johnny?"

He blinked a few times. After a moment, it clicked.

"Oh, shit! You think they knew about my inheritance?"

"No one without intimate knowledge of your relationship with Ginger would waste time with a scheme like this. How many people does XCCW employ?"

"Maybe sixty or so, including wrestlers and staff. I haven't been back since Ginger was taken but I can show you around if you need me to."

"No, I want you to steer clear of there for now," I replied. "Best thing you can do is lay low and let me do my thing."

"You got it, Jed. So what do you charge for this kind of thing?" he asked, cracking open his wallet.

"Just your word that this squares us," I said, sliding out of the booth. "I'll be in touch."

"Are you sure? Isn't there anything else I can do?"

"Yeah. Get to the bank."

I tossed my empty cup in the garbage and ordered another large banana milkshake to go.

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Why it's on the list ...
Winner: Best First Crime Novel
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Murder Among the Pines

Murder Among the Pines

A Maxine Benson Mystery
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
Winner, Best Crime Novella
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Escape
Excerpt

The van was flying.
Jeff Conroy stared out the window, nose to the glass, breathless. Seconds earlier, they’d been driving along on solid ground, but now their rusty old van was sailing through the sky.
The road was so far below that it looked like a snake winding its way through the grass. Except those weren’t blades of grass. They were trees. And those weren’t little model houses or toy cars like you’d find on a train set. They were the real thing.
As amazing as it might seem to be in a van that could fly, Jeff was not enjoying the ride. He was scared, and feeling more than a little sick to his stomach as the vehicle swayed back and forth through the air.
The van continued to sail along gracefully, but the view out the windows was partially obscured by the thick black magnetic straps that clung to the van’s metal body. They led up to the large helicopter above, and had been used to lift the vehicle off the road.
Harry Green, sitting at the now totally useless steering wheel, glanced back helplessly at Jeff, who was in the middle of the van, next to his dog Chipper.
“What are we going to do, Chipper?” Jeff shouted over the noise of the rotating chopper blades as he looked at the ground far below.
Chipper did not know. Chipper had only just woken up.

Five minutes ago, before their van had been tracked down by The Institute, Chipper had been dreaming.
Even though there were almost no other dogs like Chipper on the entire planet, he still resembled the most common of mutts in at least one respect.When he slept, he dreamt.
While the scientists at The Institute had spent millions of dollars to create what was in effect a running, barking, sniffing computer, outfitted with some of the most sophisticated software ever invented, the one thing they could not do was keep it awake twenty-four hours a day.
Chipper could read multiple languages, access maps in his head and do complicated calculations but, unlike an ordinary laptop that could run all the time, Chipper sometimes needed to lie down, shut his eyes and catch a few winks. Well, he didn’t have to shut his eyes, considering they weren’t real ones, but he could put them into sleep mode.
And when Chipper did finally drift off, he had dreams. Sometimes they were happy dreams, and sometimes they were nightmares.
Before the van became airborne, Chipper had been having a very happy dream, a dream of happier times.
He was dreaming about when he was a puppy.
Oh, what a glorious time it was, before his body was outfitted with chips and wires and circuitry and memory banks. Back then, Chipper’s thoughts weren’t like the ones he had now. These days, Chipper tended to think in actual words, just like people, but when he was a puppy it wasn’t like that at all. There were impulses, and instincts, and feelings of joy and fear and curiosity.

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Why it's on the list ...
Winner, Best Juvenile/YA Crime Book
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The Real Lolita

The Real Lolita

A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover

A gripping true-crime investigation of the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner, which brings the forgotten girl--and the two years she was forced to pretend she was the daughter of her kidnapper and abuser--back to life. The real-life inspiration of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time, yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was derived from a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of Sally Hor …

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Excerpt

I FIRST READ LOLITA at sixteen, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. It was something of a self-imposed dare. Only a few months earlier I’d breezed through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some months later I’d reckon with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
 
Those iconic opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta,”sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
 
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known from the foreword, supplied by the fictional narrator John Ray, Jr., PhD, that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her freedom
is short-lived.
 
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita. Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
 
It happened to the writer Mikita Brottman, who in The Maximum Security Book Club described her own cognitive dissonance discussing Lolita with the discussion group she led at a Maryland maximum-security prison. Brottman, reading the novel in advance, had “immediately fallen in love with the narrator,” so much so that Humbert Humbert’s “style, humor, and sophistication blind[ed] me to his faults.” Brottman knew she shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile, but she couldn’t help
being mesmerized.
 
The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “He’s just an old pedo!” A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words. I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to thelower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting
a little girl.”
 
Brottman, grappling with the prisoners’ blunt responses, realized her foolishness. She wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be seduced by style or manipulated by language. Millions of readers missed how Lolita folded in the story of a girl who experienced in real life what Dolores Haze suffered on the page. The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.
 
Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.
 
 
WRITING ABOUT VLADIMIR NABOKOV daunted me, and still does. Reading his work and researching in his archives was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
 
Nabokov loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers and I hate Tom-peeping over the fence of those lives,” he once declared in a lecture about Russian literature to his students at Cornell University, where he taught from 1948 through 1959. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time—and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life.”
 
He made his public distaste for the literal mapping of fiction to real life known as early as 1944, in his idiosyncratic, highly selective, and sharply critical biography of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story,’ ” Nabokov chided. “Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
 
The Gogol biography was more a window into Nabokov’s own thinking than a treatise on the Russian master. With respect to his own work, Nabokov did not want critics, academics, students, and readers to look for literal meanings or real-life influences. Whatever source material he’d relied on was grist for his own literary mill, to be used as only he saw fit. His insistence on the utter command of his craft served Nabokov well as his reputation and fame grew after the American publication of Lolita in 1958. Scores of interviewers, whether they wrote him letters, interrogated him on television, or visited him at his house, abided by his rules of engagement. They handed over their questions in advance and accepted his answers, written at leisure, cobbling them together to mimic spontaneous conversation.
 
Nabokov erected roadblocks barring access to his private life for deeper, more complex reasons than to protect his inalienable right to tell stories. He kept family secrets, quotidian and gargantuan, that he did not wish anyone to air in public. And no wonder, when you consider what he lived through: the Russian Revolution, multiple emigrations, the rise of the Nazis, and the fruits of international bestselling success. After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Nabokov also abandoned Russian, the language of the first half of his literary career, for English. He equated losing his mother tongue to losing a limb, even though, in terms of style and syntax, his English dazzled beyond the imagination of most native speakers.
 
Always by his side, aiding Nabokov with his lifelong quest to keep nosy people at bay, was his wife, Véra. She took on all of the tasks Nabokov wouldn’t or couldn’t do: assistant, chief letter writer, first reader, driver, subsidiary rights agent, and many other less-defined roles. She subsumed herself, willingly, for his art, and anyone who poked too deeply at her undying devotion looking for contrary feelings was rewarded with fierce denials, stonewalling, or outright untruths.
 
Yet this book exists in part because the Nabokovs’ roadblocks eventually crumbled. Other people did gain access to his private life. There were three increasingly tendentious biographies by Andrew Field, whose relationship with his subject began in harmony but curdled into acrimony well before Nabokov died in 1977. A two-part definitive study by Brian Boyd is still the biographical standard, a quarter century after its publication, with which any Nabokov scholar must reckon. And Stacy Schiff’s 1999 portrayal of Véra Nabokov illuminated so much about their partnership and teased out the fragments of Véra’s inner life.
 
We’ve also learned more about what made Nabokov tick since the Library of Congress lifted its fifty-year Restriction upon his papers in 2009, opening the entire collection to the public. The more substantive trove at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection still has some restrictions, but I was able to immerse myself in Nabokov’s work, his notes, his manuscripts, and also the ephemera—newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, diaries.
 
A strange thing happened as I looked for clues in his published work and his archives: Nabokov grew less knowable. Such is the paradox of a writer whose work is so filled with metaphor and allusion, so dissected by literary scholars and ordinary readers. Even Boyd claimed, more than a decade and a half after writing his biography of Nabokov, that he still did not fully understand Lolita.
 
What helped me grapple with the book was to reread it, again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Nabokov himself believed the only novels worth reading are the ones that demand to be read on multiple occasions. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
 
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other . . . were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
 
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude himself. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of preadolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these signs of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
 
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
 
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
 
OVER THE FOUR OR SO YEARS I spent working on this book project, I spoke with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
 
I can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader. Given that the story moves so quickly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. But I would argue that even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
 
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare. Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction. What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
 
With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.

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