A Magpie's Smile
Review: Calgary, Alberta, the city many call Canada's oil capital, is usually associated with happy times like those at its world-famous Calgary Stampede, its professional hockey and football games, and the still talked about 1988 Winter Olympics. But in Eugene Meese's debut mystery, the city's dark underside gets exposed - perhaps overexposed for some - as a crazed serial killer murders and scalps victims and a tormented Calgary Police Services homicide detective, John Jacob ( "Jake" to his friends, "J.J." to his tormentors) Fry, struggles to find the perpetrator, always a maddening step or two behind.
Meese's novel has an experimental overlay. He uses time slots instead of chapters to frame the story in a continuous run with back stories to fill in information about his broken marriage, his time spent with his son, his connection to his father, the death of his first police partner, and bits of background information about various characters. A quintessential anti-hero, forty-four-year-old Fry emerges throughout the novel as a hard-nosed, old school cop, wary of his colleagues, downright ornery with his supervisors, and impatient with his subordinates, peers and any others who fail to meet his lustily-opinionated standards. On his mostly hidden softer side, he relaxes with woodworking projects while his cat, "Lips," watches. As well, he develops a relationship with Miyoko Fitzgerald, the Glenbow Museum's Assistant Curator, "[p]articularly of the Native exhibits", whose mixed race parentage and position at the museum play an important role in the plot of the story. Her Vancouver importer-exporter father, she says, "'imported' my mother from Japan."
Setting his novel in the Calgary of the 1970s economic boom allows Meese to introduce several situations of tension and drama. There's the ongoing racial strain between Indians and whites, exacerbated by an inaccurate story leaked by Fry's supervisor blaming an Indian suspect for the scalpings. Then there's the suicide of an Indian lawyer frustrated with the lack of officials' political will to change conditions for his people. Red-necked cops appear, too, and so do references to the influx of Coasters looking for Calgary's streets of gold and jobs in the oil patch. Then there are the hookers, the homeless, and the addicts who populate Fry's world. Bottom-feeding scribes and photogs from the Bulletin sensationalize the killings Fry tries to solve with help from a professor at the University of Calgary, Miyoko at the Glenbow and his own "blood into paper" police procedurals in the forensic sifting through clues of fingernail scrapings from a leather jacket and grass clippings from a crime scene. " Big Nose," a Lysol-sipping suspect he interviews, turns out to be a victim who narrowly escaped with his life. Others, though - a pretend prostitute, a mid-twenties junkie drummer, and a couple of Nova Scotian job-seekers – don't get off as lucky. And even Fry and Miyoko come in for their share of hair-raising adventures in the story's action-packed finale that reveals the demented perpetrator's bizarre logic for his deaths by scalping.
A former journalist, then a professor of journalism at King's College, Halifax, NS, and now a novelist, Meese sometimes strays into academic stylistics – strained strings of repetitive phrases, for example. Overall, though, he tells a good story, has created some credible characters, sprinkled his story with Calgary landmarks and icons, and left a number of openings for future adventures with the irascible and insubordinate John Jacob ("Jake" or "J.J.") Fry and perhaps Miyoko and her carving of the good luck/bad luck smiling magpie for which he promised to build a pedestal.
Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (firstname.lastname@example.org) for contributing his review of A Magpie's Smile.
Review Copyright © 2009 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission
Location(s) referenced in A Magpie's Smile: Calgary, Alberta
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A Magpie's Smile by Eugene Meese
Publisher: NeWest Press
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: May 2009
List Price: $12.95