by I. M. Owen
UNTIL I STARTED to read L. R. Wright`s novels about Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg of the RCMP I never knew that there was a stretch of the British Columbia shore called the Sunshine Coast -- which apparently lives LIP to its name, at least in the Summer. (One of the novels is called A Chill Rain in January, and it conveys a vivid feeling of damp.) To an Ontarian who has always thought of the whole West Coast as a sort of temperate rainforest this is a revelation. I`ll probably never see the region, but these books fascinate me with a description of country that appeals to my imagination. I`ve Studied it on a map. Quite close to Vancouver as the crow flies or the ferry
runs, it`s also remote, because the main road from Vancouver north to Squamish and Whistler passes far to the cast, on the other side of Howe Sound. And the principal town of the Sunshine Coast is Sechelt, which is really a village.
If you haven`t read the earlier books, postpone reading A Touch of Panic until you have done so, starting with The Suspect. To those who have read them, I`m happy to report that the pleasant and gradual middle-aged love affair between Karl Alberg and the SecheIt librarian Cassandra Mitchell has made good progress, and they have now been living together for eight months. And Karl has bought a 27-foot sloop, which is all right with Cassandra though she herself is frightened by sailing.
Around this central stern of narrative Wright, with amazing deftness, weaves several different stories, loosely related or quite unrelated to each other yet somehow never seeming to the reader like distractions. The one that has the least relation to anything else in the book, yet provides a prologue and an amusing epilogue, is the story of "the thief," not a professional but a dedicated amateur who pursues theft as a hobby. The whole point for him is entering other people`s houses undetected, and getting a sense of their lives; he steals only things that arc unlikely to be missed for a long time. His identity isn`t revealed to the reader until almost a third of the way through the book; it`s never discovered, or even suspected, by the police.
There are actually two murders in the book, but both are relatively minor elements in the narrative. One is solved almost incidentally to one of the other stories. The other remains a secret between the killer and the reader.
Perhaps the most memorable character is Winnifred Gartner, an elderly
widow who owns and drives a taxi. Since her husband`s death she has allowed the garden in front of her house to go wild, which leads to a running feud between her and a neighbour who is a professional gardener. Winnifred is kindhearted and impulsive, and she takes into her house a young woman who has arrived in town in search of her estranged husband and their two children, and has nowhere to stay. This leads to many complications.
And then there is Gordon Murphy, a narcissistic, lottery -enriched professor of library science in search of the perfect mate. His decision that he has found her in the person of Cassandra Mitchell becomes an obsession that eventually brings the novel to a suspenseful climax.
Amid all these story-lines -- and more -- the author never loses control, or the reader`s attention. I don`t know how she does it. But if I had the secret I`d be writing novels myself.