What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Mystery Monday: With roots in the Arctic, no wonder this is a chilling tale...

I can't even remember any more where I first heard about Giles Blunt's series of novels set in a fictional northern Ontario city named Algonquin Bay (a thinly-disguised North Bay), but I do know that I'm very glad that someone mentioned them to me! At their heart is John Cardinal, a middle-aged detective who once played in the big leagues in Toronto, and whose daughter is trying to make it in the art world's big leagues in New York. I'll try to avoid some spoilers -- this is one of those series in which major life events shake up the main protagonist from one book to the next -- but will say that Cardinal, while world-weary, still has an ability to empathize with those who suffer and a strong sense of justice driving him.

In the latest book in the series, both will be taxed by the events that unfold. It is winter in Algonquin Bay, and the freezing wind is blowing so fiercely that when Cardinal wakes up one morning, he sees it blow the ice fishing shacks clear across the lake. He is called out to the scene of a crime -- a man is dead and a woman is missing, feared dead. But when a woman's body is found, it isn't that of Laura Lacroix, but rather the wife of a Canadian businessman turned politician, who vanished hundreds of miles away in Ottawa. Oddest of all, when she is found, she has been chained up and left to die -- but dressed in warm clothes and abandoned with a thermos beside her, as if her murderer wanted to give her some kind of fighting chance -- or just prolong her agony.

At first, the excerpts from a 20-year-old diary kept by a member of an Arctic expedition are a puzzling contrast and an interruption to the main flow of the narrative. I was just as eager as Cardinal's colleague (and increasingly close friend) Lise Delorme to understand whether the former rock star and current sex club owner was responsible for the crime, given his track record. I wanted to know how the Algonquin Bay cops would cope with the arrival of a brash and arrogant Toronto hotshot, with an inability to work well with others but a tremendous reputation. But slowly, Blunt's portrayal of the Arctic world captured my attention, from the natural landscape and its perils to the struggle of a small group of scientists cooped up together to coexist in isolation, grabbed my interest just as much or even more -- especially when the ominous link between the contemporary crime(s) and the history slowly emerges.

This isn't a pitch-perfect mystery novel. There are a few implausible elements in the sub-plot featuring Lise Delorme and her attempt to hold someone responsible for a past crime, for instance, and Loach, the obnoxious newcomer, was a two-dimensional figure who didn't really add all that much to the central tale. But Cardinal himself is anything but two-dimensional, and the setting -- Northern Ontario in the depths of winter -- is a vivid and authentic backdrop to a compelling mystery. Read it -- but start off with Blunt's debut, Forty Words for Sorrow, which introduces both Cardinal and Delorme and also is set in a fierce winter. One reviewer in Toronto's Globe and Mail argued that Blunt does for Northern Ontario what James Lee Burke does for Louisiana's Cajun country, and having just read my first Burke novel, I'd have to agree.

For some unknown reason, while the first few books are easy enough to find in the United States, the later ones have yet to be published here, so you'll have to order them from an Amazon vendor or Amazon.ca. For my part, I haven't regretted doing so yet -- this has rapidly become a "must read in hardcover; can't wait until the paperback is released" series. A solid 4-star book; recommended.

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