Monday, April 28, 2014

Black Rock, by John Fetridge

John McFetridge has lingered in the gray area of writers for years. Critically acclaimed, a “writer’s writer” of whose work his peers could not get enough. Readers have been slower to the party. Sales of his Toronto series have not kept pace with the praise, leaving McFetridge dangerously close to becoming a cult writer. (As defined by the late Donald Westlake, a cult writer is an author seven readers shy of making a living.)

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back in order to take two steps forward. In McFetridge’s case, that step back is forty years, to the era of the Québécois separatist movement of the 1970s. Public places were bombed, public figures were kidnapped—and sometimes killed—and airplanes were hijacked. Montreal’s police force is stretch beyond effectiveness, so when young women start showing up dead there’s little or no response available.

Constable Eddie Dougherty is an Anglophone cop in a city where both are suspect. He knew one of the dead girls and comes in contact with the detective to whom the cases belong, at least when neither of them are running down false leads or putting on shows of police presence for political reasons, which is most of the time. Dougherty sees through the facades and wants to work the real case; stealing time from his assignments as he can to work with the more experienced homicide detective, who is himself torn between wanting to catch the killer and keeping Dougherty out of trouble.

History makes troubled times and their resolution seem inevitable. From the American civil rights movement and Vietnam through the Irish Troubles and South African apartheid; all seem relatively tidy and their results foreordained to those who have only read of them. McFetridge strips historical hindsight away from the reader, placing him on the ground with Dougherty, not understanding what’s happening, unable to guess what comes next, more uncertain than afraid, which may be even worse. The writing style is perfect for putting the reader in the streets with the characters. Their sense of confusion and wonder is made clear, as no overarching view is provided; the reader knows what the characters know, filtered through their eyes.

For fans of McFetridge’s previous books, Black Rock has the voice and ear-catching dialog that make all of them such engrossing reads. Now add a sense of history, a You Are There sense of being involved in things larger than oneself, and you’ll have a good idea of what his newest venture is like to read. Kirkus has said Black Rock may be McFetridge’s breakout book; the same could have been said about more than one previous effort, notably 2008’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Maybe the historical connection will lend a previously unnoticed gravitas to Black Rock that will propel McFetridge to the top ranks. For years he has written books that are not only set in Canada, but are about Canada. It would be no more than fair for the book that places him most squarely into Canadian history to be the one that makes him more than a regional success.

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