Timothy Findley does something remarkable in his latest novel, Spadework. He weds the classic nature of a Shakespearean domestic comedy with subjects and themes from W.H. Auden's poem, "Detective Story." The result is a bristling examination of the consequences of overweening ambition on both professional and personal happiness. The novel is also an entertaining love letter to the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival and to the town itself.
Findley has always been an audacious writer. His highly inventive, Giller-nominated Pilgrim (1999) was a startling blend of historical novel with fictional biography. Famous Last Words (1981) depended on creating a fictional protagonist from Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and developing a conceit that morphed the work into a spy novel involving the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Other bold writing choices have come with their own rewards. In some cases, there are awards to prove it. In 1977, Findley won his first Governor General's Award for his novel, The Wars, an examination of the strength of the human spirit during the trench horrors of WW I. In 1989, the Mystery Writers of America singled out The Telling of Lies for an Edgar award. In 2000, he was granted a second Governor General's Award, this time in drama, for his play, Elizabeth Rex (produced at Stratford last year). Jury members heralded its "provocative investigation" of "abiding dualities" between what is masculine and what is feminine, a theme that also pervades Spadework.
The hothouse atmosphere of the theater world is one Findley knows well. He began an acting career at the Stratford Festival in 1953 before turning to writing full-time in 1962. He knows how uneasy lies the head that wears the actor's crown. This is the lesson that the handsome 29 year old protagonist Griffin Kincaid and all those around him need to learn during the course of a sweltering summer in the not so cozy confines of the closed community of Stratford.
Epigraphs from Auden's "Detective Story" provide guideposts to some of the basic structural devices derived from The Golden Age of detective fiction. Who "cannot draw the map of his life, shade in/The little station where he meets his loves/And says good-bye continually, and mark the spot/Where the body of his happiness was first discovered?" Bodies and the search for happiness lead to "blackmail and philandering" and a "feud between the local common sense/And that exasperating brilliant intuition/That's always on the spot by chance before us."
Other aspects of the novel drawn from traditional mysteries include a map of Downtown Stratford printed on the front and back flyleafs of the book. The whole scene of the crime is laid outłthe Avon River and Festival Theatre to the northeast; favorite watering holes like Bentley's, The Church Restaurant, and Pazzo's a little further to the west; and residences of the key players settled along Cambria and Shrewsbury and to the south along Whitlock Streets. Residents and tourists alike will recognize local landmarks; other readers can trust the authenticity of regional detail.
It's the Shakespearean milieu of Spadework that triggers the comic plot that traps the dramatis personae. Griffin is married to 35 year old Jane Terry, a Louisiana native who is the property maker for the Shakespeare Festival. They have a seven year old son, Will. On opening night of Much Ado About Nothing, Jane and Will watch as Griffin receives 12 triumphant curtain calls. But all is not well in the world of the Kincaidsłneither on stage nor off. Despite Griffin's apparent professional successes, it's not certain that he will receive the best roles during the next season. He realizes that he may need to court martinet director, Jonathan Crawford, who has his own designs on Griffin. At home, "the centre where the three or four things/That happen to a man do happen," domestic discord reigns when Jane is befuddled by Griffin's sexual inattentiveness.
Enter several additional outside obstacles. Gardeners Luke Quinlan and his uncle, Jessie, aka "Runner," have significant roles in a sub-plot related to unsolved rapes and murders in nearby towns. Luke and Jessie also initiate the spadework that severs a telephone cable in the garden of the Kincaids' rented home. An Adonis-like telephone repairman, Milos Saworkski, appears, looking like "a movie star in a ragman's borrowed clothes." Jane is astonished by his rare beauty and dubs him "angel-man." As she succumbs to his sexual attraction, he becomes the model for Saint George in a set design that has been troubling her. A series of highly charged erotic episodes are detailed in a sensual photo session. In the meantime, Griffin, under the "condition of ambition" has begun an affair with Jonathan. More than the phone service is disrupted as the family struggles to sort through various domestic maneuvers that ensue before order is re-established at the close of the novel.
Findley's primary achievement in Spadework is mimicking a play in novel form. As the cavalcade of domestic discord proceeds, he draws on a discussion of dramaturgy early in the book that relates to the ensuing action. As Jonathan describes various stage entrances and exits ("'we all know no one enters from the wings any more than they exit to their dressing-rooms'"), he goes on to explain the key dramatic thrust of a play. In a play, "'it is always now. Now, with absolutely no foreknowledge of anything. Nothing of what will happen as a consequence of the immediate. You know nothing. And we must believe you know nothing.'" In essence, this is the situation for all the characters in Spadework. Deceptions, false accusations, and misunderstandings accumulate until "'honour above all else'" begins to define everyone's actions in the now, in the current state of events.
As the novel moves inexorably towards its resolutely theatrical conclusion, the company of players and the Stratford community prepare for a celebratory swan release. The emblematic nature of the mating habits of swans resonates in the minds of several of the characters. All's well that ends well. Spadework is an accomplished domestic comedy in a patently Shakespearean vein with a touch of the classic cozy mystery about it. As if his recent plays weren't gift enough to Stratford, Findley has also contributed a heart-lifting billet doux. ņ
Robert Allen Papinchak is a book critic in the Seattle, Washington, area who regularly reviews Canadian novels for numerous publications.