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Bookends: This Mystery Begins as a Fish Story October 15, 2011

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.

Bookends: This Mystery Begins as a Fish Story

By Dan Davidson

September 27, 2011

Star, Sept. 30/11

– 825 words –

Ice Lake

By John Farrow


528 pages


I get asked how many books I read in a year. My quick answer is that I write 50 to 52 of these columns and read at least that many books. It’s not true, but people look at me strangely when I say that I always have three or four on the go at any given time. I read more than 52, but some books don’t make the cut for a variety of reasons: too old, too bad, and too similar to something I’ve reviewed recently.

Too old often happens when I get a book and put off reading it because I’ve just recently read something by the author or have written up something like it.

I got my copy of Ice Lake in 2001, not long after reading the very first of the Cinq-Mars mysteries. I was expecting that John Farrow (aka Trevor Fergusson) would produce another one in a year or two, but he didn’t, and the book sat on my “to be read shelf” until this year, when he finally came out with River City. This, by all accounts, is a massive tome, a hybrid somewhere between historical novel and mystery. I haven’t seen it yet, but the publisher’s expectation is such that Ice Lake (along with City of Ice) was re-released, giving me an excuse to read it at last.

As a member of the Montréal Urban Police (Service de police de la Ville de Montréal) his jurisdiction outside the city is limited, so when he and Bill Mathers, his Anglo partner, stumble onto a murder inside an ice-fishing shack, they are prepared to hand it over to the Sureté du Quebec or to the local police. Surprisingly, both forces are content to let Cinq-Mars offer his expertise, and so we get to the end of page 34.

At that point Farrow does something entirely un-mystery. He jumps us back two months and introduces the events that led up to the body being under the lake. In addition he takes us into Cinq-Mars’ past to show us how he has been coping with the impending death of his father. It’s140 pages before we get back to the mystery of the dead man, but which time we know who he is, how he got there, who did it and why.

Cinq-Mars still has to learn all these things, but we don’t, so something else has to be happening to keep us reading the book. The late Lawrence Sanders wrote these kinds of crime novels. His Edward X. Delaney mysteries were a lot like this. We knew the solution but the interactions between the characters was so good that we wanted to see how the detective would work it out. Much the same thing used to happen in the Columbo TV movies, where Peter Falk’s disheveled detective would nearly always have the answer in about five minutes, but would spend the next 85 maneuvering the bad guy into a trap.

Farrow’s not quite like either of those examples, and yet the comparisons are apt. In another way Cinq-Mars is like Spenser, whose modis operandi is often to sniff around and see who he can annoy enough to have them react. In this case the reaction comes with an apparent attempt to plant a bomb on Cinq-Mars’ car in the middle of the night.

The bad guys are an odd mixture of characters. There’s a greedy and ambitious drug researcher who probably started out meaning well. There’s an idealistic Mohawk woman who really does mean well. There’s the corporate/mob spy who never expected to end up dead. There’s an absolutely insane single mother, who has everyone fooled until nearly the end of the story. There are some very serious mobsters who have the drug company CEO under their thumb, although he does not seem to understand that until way too late in the game.

There are murders both intended and unintended, a body count of more than 42, though we see only a few of them. There is politics, both interagency and interracial (as parts of this story take place on tribal land near the city).

Touchingly, there is also a reconciliation between Cinq-Mars and his father, with the latter finally accepting that his son’s choice of vocation is just as serious and necessary as the priesthood he had wanted him to pursue.

I particularly liked the “offer he could not refuse” quality of Cing-Mars’ final confrontation with the drug company CEO. While it was a completely different situation, it put me in mind of the ending of one of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Whimsey novels, in which Lord Peter offered the murderer a gentleman’s choice.

All in all, Ice Lake was an excellent crime novel, not really a mystery, but more of a novel with a crime in it.





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