Murder, the Canadian Way

Depth of Field

Published on July 1, 2009

Depth Of Field
Michael Blair

Dundurn Group

Michael Blair’s latest novel in the Granville Island series is an engaging mystery, one that the reader can’t put down, but doesn’t want to end. I interviewed him on a May afternoon at his apartment on Atwater Avenue in Montreal, with windows overlooking the fresh green foliage. His comfortable book-lined living room has wood floors and rich accents of crimson and black – appropriate colours for a writer of murder mysteries. I asked him about the strong sense of place that permeates and grounds his novels.

ER Did you grow up in the Downsview area of Toronto? There was something about the way you wrote about that neighbourhood in your previous novel, The Dells, the way it had changed over time…

MB Yes I did, after I was seven and my family moved from Montreal, but I don’t need to live in a place to write about it. I’ve never lived in Vancouver, where most of my novels are set; in fact I visited it for the first time in 1989. I have a friend who lived in Sea Village on Granville Island, which is where my character Tom McCall lives. I’ve been back on numerous occasions, and I try for geographical verisimilitude, but in the end I’m writing fiction. Is my version of False Creek Marina identical to the actual one? Maybe not completely, but enough. There’s a rule in writing that if you get three things right, you can carry the reader with you. But I’ve done my homework. For example, in Overexposed, when the boat burns down to the waterline, I asked numerous questions of a friend who’s a sailor and knows boats.

Then in 2002 I rode around with a Vancouver ambulance crew in the downtown area for a spell. I learned a lot about the seamier side of the city. The most memorable experience with the paramedic crew was picking up a motorcyclist in Stanley Park. He’d been rear-ended and his hip was fractured. When the paramedic asked him how much pain he was in, on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the worst he’d ever experienced, he answered “nine.” I shudder still at what he’d been doing to go as high as 10.

Used to be mystery writers could ride around with the police, but they don’t do that anymore. However, the police are just amazing. They will put you in touch with ex-cops who will talk to you. Anyhow, my novels do not deal with police procedure; the policemen are secondary characters.

ER Does this relationship with the police make you unwilling to depict them in a negative light?

MB No. Well, to some extent. I’ve been thinking about the big confrontation scene with Loth near the Granville Street Bridge. You know, once a book is finished it’s like it’s no longer part of you: you let it go. But is that scene necessary? Would I cut it if I were writing the book again?

ER It’s a fine set piece, dramatic and visual. You do fight scenes well.

MB Thank you. But one of the things you learn when you come to study writing is that none of your writing is precious – you can cut anything.

ER How has your technical writing career affected your fiction style?

MB I joined Canadian National in 1984. That’s where I learned discipline as a writer, and that there is no such thing as waiting for the muse. I learned a lot about life too, from working in a corporate setting: about people and the way they interact, about the way things get done. It was while I was at CN that I started taking creative writing courses at McGill, learning the nuts and bolts of fiction. I took a buy-out from CN in 1994, finished my first novel, If Looks Could Kill, in 1995, then sold my soul back to CN as a freelancer. It’s been a good relationship though. [I don’t write about railways] because I want to keep them as a client! I don’t write about Montreal either, although I’ve lived here most of my life. I don’t want to write about the French-English thing.

ER Is it hard to make the switch between technical writing and fictional writing?

MB Very hard. Sometimes in my life it’s been possible for me to switch gears by walking. In 1987 I was living on my own in Montreal near Sherbrooke and Decarie. I would leave work at CN at 6:15 and walk home, and that would do it. I could work on my fiction in the evenings. Then we moved to Atwater and the length of the walk was no longer enough to make the switch. Plus my life changed. I met my partner, Pam. We got the cottage in Vermont. Sometimes, rarely, I write there on weekends, in longhand, ensconced in a Muskoka chair. But I am a disciplined writer. I get up every day during the week at 6:15. I can be at my computer at seven and when I’m in the thick of it I work straight through to noon. I have to admit that paid work, the technical writing on commission, always assumes a higher priority.

ER Tell me about your publishers. You started out with McClelland & Stewart, then switched to Dundurn Press.

MB My first published novel, If Looks Could Kill, was one of the five finalists for the Chapters Robertson Davies Award. Douglas Gibson called me and that is how I came to be published by McClelland & Stewart. Then they let a whole slate of writers go, including me. Someone mentioned Dundurn so I submitted A Hard Winter Rain, and Barry Jowett liked it and I’ve been with Dundurn ever since.

ER You have published two different series, three Granville Island Mysteries and two novels in the Joe Shoe series. You seem to alternate.

MB That’s true. I like to be well into writing a new novel by the time the previous one is published. I’m now writing the first of a new series of books about a private detective called Hack Loomis, who lives in Burlington, Vermont.

ER One big difference I noticed was that the Granville Island Mysteries are written in the first person, from Tom McCall’s point of view, whereas the Joe Shoe novels, which seem moodier and darker, are in the third person.

MB Yes. The first Joe Shoe novel, A Hard Winter Rain, was originally the same story told four times from the point of view of four different people. The character of Joe Shoe sprang from a character study I wrote – just a few pages.

ER He’s certainly a different sort of hero from Tom McCall – Shoe is serious, disciplined, and slightly detached. Whereas McCall…

MB McCall was pretty much disaster-prone from the beginning. In the first book, If Looks Could Kill, he discovers that his floating home is sinking. Why is he like that? Well, basically, the stories hinge on the trouble that seems to find him, usually in the form of a woman, though not always. He’s very susceptible to women. In Depth of Field trouble comes right at the start, in the form of the gorgeous young woman who walks into his office claiming to be Mrs Waverley.

ER Is this an homage to The Maltese Falcon?

MB Yes, with Sam Spade in his fog-bound office, when Mrs Wonderly walks in. There’s also a connection with The Maltese Falcon when McCall nicknames another character “Joel Cairo.”

ER Do any of your other books reference classic movies and detective novels in this way?

MB There’s a reference in Overexposed to the classic Travis McGee novels, when one character insists on calling McCall “Mr McGee.”

McGee’s creator, John D. Macdonald, was the first mystery author I was ever hooked on, in the late ’60s. Before that I mostly read science fiction. Afterwards I went on to read Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, McBain. And that, as they say, was that. Not that I haven’t been influenced by other writers since then, like James Lee Burke and some terrific Canadians: Peter Robinson, L.R. Wright, Gail Bowen…too many to mention.

ER Do you work out your plots in advance?

MB I have the ending in view throughout, but my books are character-driven and I let the characters take me there. If I find a character in conflict I ask myself, What would this particular person really do in this situation? Of course, in a series the established characters are more predictable. And in the McCall series there’s always a character who gets away at the end.

I work very hard at dialogue. It’s that rule of three again, pick three characteristic speech-habits and you establish the character in the reader’s mind.

It’s also been said that I’m good at depicting strong female characters, and not just the young and cute ones. I grew up surrounded by families of sisters. I fought and climbed trees and wrestled with them until one day it suddenly seemed no longer appropriate. And I have a younger sister who is a strong person too, like my mother.

ER What about your nastier characters? Some of them are quite stomach-turning.

MB One other thing I believe about characterization is that you can’t just have an established character suddenly reveal himself to be a psychopath. You have to allow something of his psychopathic qualities to show through along the way.

ER Why do you think mystery novels are so popular?

MB I always get that question. I think we need to have a sense of control. In these novels, there is a solution. Literature is filled with losers, mysteries less so; the good guys win, there is a hero. I think that’s also a lot do with why I write, needing a sense of control over existence. Mind you, the thing that makes writing about Tom McCall fun is that he actually doesn’t have much control over his own destiny. His motto could be “Shit happens.” mRb

Elspeth Redmond is a Baie d'Urfe writer and reviewer.



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