by I. M. Owen
An Eric Wright detective novel without Charlie Salter seems like a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, it's a fact. The central figure in Buried in Stone is Mel Pickett, whom we have met before: in A Sensitive Case (1990) he was assigned to help Salter. We learned then that he was a childless widower close to retirement, that his dog was called Willis though she was female (the name comes from a spoonerized quotation from Dickens: "Willis is barking"), and that he was building a log cabin three hours' drive north of Toronto.
Now he has retired and is spending a few days at the cabin, putting some finishing touches to it and eager to describe how he went about it to anyone who will listen. (Eric Wright has done something like this; he loves to work experiences of his own into his books.) A young couple come to tell him that they have found a body lying among rocks just off a little-frequented trail on the other side of the river. He has them tell their story to Lyman Caxton, the one-man police force in the nearby village of Larch River. He has a look at the body and calls in the Ontario Provincial Police. One of the two detectives who come turns out to be a former subordinate of Pickett's in the Toronto force.
The body is identified by Betty Cullen, the local baker (and Caxton's lover), as her somewhat disreputable younger brother, Tim Marlow. This means that Caxton must stay out of the investigation. Pickett tries to stay out of it too, but with limited success.
Eventually the OPP arrest and charge a rather unlikely suspect. Unconvinced, Pickett decides to look into Marlow's past, before he came to live with his sister in Larch River. He takes a train to Winnipeg, partly in order to ride the transcontinental railway once more before passenger trains disappear altogether, and then rents a car to drive to a fishing camp on the Lake of the Woods, where Marlow once worked as a guide. Wright clearly enjoyed writing about a fishing camp in his 1994 non-detective novel, Moodie's Tale: it makes by far the best part of that book. And this episode allows him to return to the subject briefly. Information Pickett picks up here leads him to further investigation in Winnipeg. Then, back in Larch River, he has a sudden insight that turns the case upside down; in Wright's more felicitous phrase, "it was like one of those optical puzzles where the foreground becomes the background as soon as you focus your eyes correctly."
I think this is probably the best piece of detection Wright has achieved. It's enhanced by the convincing picture of small-town life in the southern Canadian Shield, and by the discreet, pleasant elderly love affair Pickett carries on with the woman who manages the coffee shop attached to the local service station. We leave him happily settled for the rest of life.
But now, please, I want to know what's been happening in the lives of Charlie Salter, his wife Annie, and their sons Angus and Seth. They're friends of mine.