Monday, August 17, 2009

Books, Books and More Books

I like going into bookstores. I have to admit to ordering books over the internet, but only when I could not find them in bookstores. I prefer to hold a book in my hand, read the blurbs on the back, skim through (never to the end!) and generally see how it is layed out. More than that, I appreciate the atmosphere of a nice bookstore, the way it is arranged, the lighting and ambiance. It is guaranteed that you can always run find someone who is in-to books, someone who likes to talk books and authors and storylines.
This past week my wife Susan and I made a little pilgrimage and visited three Canadian mystery bookstores.
The first was The Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto on Bayview near Yonge Street. There we met with Marian Misters who was very helpful. Susan was taken with the ladder that slides on rollers along the tall, packed bookcases. I liked Sir Percival, a very big poodle who seemed to lay around a good deal. I can also recommend subscribing to their newsletter, The Merchant of Menace.

Next it was on to the nation’s capital, Ottawa where we dropped on at Prime Crime Mystery Bookstore on Bank Street. It is a nice, cozy long shop that draws you in, with big, comfortable chairs at the back, a coffin-shaped bookcase, and it is the only bookstore I’ve been to that has a skeleton in the window. Their slogan is, We’re dying to meet you.
The last stop on our pilgrimage was historic Kingston and As the Plot Thickens on Brock Street. Unfortunately Brian Fenlon was out, but we did get a opportunity to speak with Ann Stevens who is as friendly as anyone from the East Coast. This shop has all the accoutrements of the perfect mystery bookstore; lovely hardwood floors, custom-made bookcases, fireplace, soft lighting and comfy chairs. Maybe its most notable feature was that the cashier’s table was an antique bar with foot rail.
While in Kingston, I attended the Scene of the Crime, the annual festival for mystery fans held on Wolfe Island.
Saturday, August 15, was a beautiful morning for crossing the St. Lawrence River to Wolfe Island. The ferry ride from Kingston is free, and it was my first trip to the island. Giant windmills stood like techno sentinels along the island. These slow-turning guardians of the Green movement generate much needed power but look so out of place in such a setting.
This was the 10th annual Scene of the Crime festival, and the Grant Allen Award, named for the man who is a pioneer in Canadian crime writing and was born on the Wolfe Island in 1848.
Among the great list of Canadian mystery writers were, Peter Robinson, this year’s Grant Allen Award winner, Rick Blechta, Barbara Fradkin, David Rotenberg, and Vicki Delany. Needless to say there were plenty of books for sale.
As rewarding as it was meeting and talking to these writers and hearing them read their work, was meeting the great mystery fans who attend the festival. These are the people who love to read mysteries and revel in thinking about crime. Better to only think about it than to do it, I say.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

To Know Evil

Who doesn’t like a good mystery? We love the chance to solve little puzzles, to discover the truth to what hides beneath the surface. Since I read my first Sherlock Holmes’ story in grade seven, I have always appreciated a good mystery.
There is something special about mystery stories. I think it strikes something in our mind and imagination. There is a riddle that must be solved. It intrigues and challenges us.
And what good is a mystery unless there is someone to solve it? I think detective stories appeal to us because through the detective we experience a sense of justice that comes when the detective solves the crime and captures the wrong-doer. As a Canadian I have a national tenancy to feel a kind of peace and security when the perpetrator is apprehended. Justice is served and order is restored out of chaos. We are very much for justice here in Canada. Peace, order and good government is a profound expression found in our Constitution Act of 1867, so there is little wonder that Canadians appreciate these three items perhaps even more so than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I could not imagine my hero ever being a mirror image of the villain. The hero must want to serve good.
History is another subject that has interested me for a long time. I am one of those people who believe it is easier to know where we are going if we know where we come from. When I began to write, it only seemed natural that I would incorporate two of my favourite subjects, mystery and history.
When a writer decides to do a historical mystery, how does the writer choose a time period and a setting?
For my latest historical mystery, I did not choose a time and place that I was familiar with (I seldom do).
To Know Evil was inspired by another book my wife bought me (God bless her) which traced the history of the Bible through the ages, from oral tradition to the time it developed as written text. One night while reading the book I turned the page and was instantly struck by two illuminations from medieval manuscripts, each showing a group of black-robed monks with tonsures. One page not only proclaimed that these monks were guardians of the Scriptures, but went on to describe life in medieval monasteries. I remember saying out loud, “This would be a good setting for a mystery story.”
Medieval monks was something I knew nothing about. So with no idea what the mystery story would be about, I began to research monastic life in the middle-ages. Eventually I chose a time and place and the particular order I would integrate into the story.
With still no idea of what the story would entail, I began to write.
It always amazes me how a story will unfold to a writer. As I wrote my first pages, with characters not fully developed in my mind, I had not the slightest idea what would happen in the story. Only with continued research as I wrote did ideas and characters evolve.
My main character, Thomas of Worms, developed in a peculiar fashion. Needing a name I chose Thomas after one of my sons. The name I knew I could change later, but I never did. Originally Thomas was supposed to have come from the east, but I soon discovered this would not do. In my research I came across the German town of Worms and thought, ‘What a great name, Thomas of Worms!’ Being of German origin, Thomas’s character and nature naturally developed, or should I say developed naturally.