GREGORY WARD'S Water Damage opens with a prologue guaranteed to chill the blood of any parent: it calmly describes the drowning of a child through the apparent negligence of his doting father, the book's protagonist. Having thus seized a goodly portion of his readers firmly by the throat, Ward proceeds to construct a novel that is successively a domestic drama, a mystery with a touch of horror, and a suspense thriller with a bit of police procedure thrown in for good measure.
He starts by subtly delineating the aftermath of the tragedy: the slow disintegration of a life and a marriage eaten away by remorse and sorrow. Then, when the bereaved father reluctantly agrees to attend an Old Boys' reunion at his prep school, the story shifts into mystery/horror mode. This is the least convincing element, relying on some rather lurid and simplistic psychology, a disguised identity that is too strongly telegraphed for surprise, and some horrific bloodletting, which seems slightly out of place in light of the understated quality of the book's beginning. But no matter - there is barely time to formulate such cavils before we're swept into the next phase: an expertly plotted carand-mouse game in which the hero and his surviving son are stalked by a malevolent avenger. Ward rapidly and methodically tightens the screws, cutting back and forth between the killer, the hero, and the police, right up to an inventive, nail-biting climax on a Toronto streetcar.
Water Damage is a tightly written, professional piece of work that entertainingly offers something for everybody and, effectively, three books for the price of one.
Readers of Scott Young's second mystery novel, The Shaman's Knife, on the other hand, may feel they have got somewhat less for their money. It begins auspiciously enough, with Matteesie Kitologitak, an Inuk RCMP inspector, discovering that his own mother has been injured in the course of a double murder in the Northwest Territory settlement of Sanirarsipaaq.
In short order we learn of Matteesie's moribund marriage to a white woman in Ottawa and his longstanding affair with a part-Native CBC-Radio reporter in the North. The prospects for sleuthing and suspense seem promising as he sets off for Sanirarsipaaq to begin the investigation, worried that his mother may be in danger as the sole witness to the crime, and anticipating conflict with the local constable, an arrogant, possibly racist, white man. There are also rumours that shamanism is involved in the murders.
Once Matteesie arrives, however, the book slips slowly into a state of profound lethargy. This is due in large part to the dominant voice of its hero and narrator, whose reminiscences and ruminations eventually begin to sound rather smug, and whose habit of sizing up virtually every female he encounters as a prospective bedmate also becomes an irritant.
Though Young has evidently done a lot of homework with the intention of creating a convincing and respectful account of Inuit life and customs, there is a pervasive flatness about all the other characters that tends to drain the story of drama and momentum. None of the suspects, informants, bystanders, or even victims are drawn with enough vividness or individuality to engage the reader in speculation as to their motives or roles; instead, Matteesie merely tells us what he thinks. In addition, the replacement of his potential adversary on the force by a likeable and cooperative part-Native officer eliminates a potential source of illuminating conflict. Long before the apprehension of the perpetrator (whose identity does not come as a great surprise), this reader, at least, was more than ready to hop on the first available flight out of Sanirarsipaaq.
Matthew Prior, the fortyish hero of Anthony Quogan's Much Improved by Death, also maintains several far-flung dalliances with women who assist him in his sleuthing, but there any similarity to Matteesie abruptly ends. Prior, a successful playwright and part-time detective, definitely belongs in the cuttivated-amateur category and the novel is very much in the British country-house mystery tradition, with the minor variation of situating the house in question, a Regency Gothic folly, on a Caribbean island.
Within it is assembled a similarly traditional cast of characters, with, at the centre, the fabulously wealthy, socially ambitious industrialist Sir Mortimer March, who fancies himself the last scion of the Plantagenet line, and insists that someone is trying to kilt him. Around him swirls a horde of servants, advisers, and relations, each of whom, it transpires, indeed has some reason to wish him dead. Still more suspects lurk outside the castle walls, where revolution and encoberto - the local voodoo religion - are seemingly united in opposing Sir Mortimer's ownership of the island, with the possible connivance of the last, rum-soaked descendant of the island's original colonial rulers. A secret tunnel, a skeleton in a hidden room, a costume ball ... all this is, of course, highly stylized; and though Quogan mixes his exotic ingredients with a sure hand, those in search of gritty realism or gripping suspense won't find them here.
Still, I doubt that many readers will be able to foresee either the identity of the culprit or the complex machinations that person employs, all of which are elucidated in a masterly summing-up by the redoubtable Prior. Fans of the classic British mystery will certainly find familiar and reliable pleasures in Much Improved by Death.