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Profile - Mystery Matters
by Holley Rubinsky

THE THIRD Joanne Kilbourn mystery could he the one to make my name," Gail Bowen says over the phone from her home in Regina. "It has sex, violence, drama - everything a good murder mystery needs - and is well written besides." Then, getting a kick out of what she's just said, she laughs and breathlessly races on to something else. She has reason to feel a bit breathless these days: among other things, a play she co-authored will be opening early next year, and TV film rights to the second Kilbourn mystery, Murder at the Mendel, have been sold.

SKIP BACK in time to Sechelt, B.C., August 10, 199 1. It's Saturday morning at the ninth annual Festival of the Written Arts, where I first met Gail Bowen. I have missed a few minutes of her two-hour stint in the pavilion at Rockwood Centre, but from across the garden I hear frequent outbursts of laughter from an audience already enjoying themselves. As I arrive, Bowen is saying to the 200-plus crowd, "Me? I write to make money. I'm not trying to write War and Peace. I want to write entertaining, accessible stories that leave people something to think about. If I get a best seller, so much the better," and people are hanging on every word. Coming from someone else, such forthright resolve might make you wince; but when it belongs to Bowen, who has the wholesome round face of a good neighbour, you're fascinated and charmed and find yourself wishing her well. Her lack of guile, her confessional candidness and, especially, her tremendous energy are riveting. Afterwards, her first book, Deadly Appearances, published by Douglas & McIntyre (as are all Bowen's hardcovers), sells like hotcakes at

$27 a whack.

SINCE THEN, Bowen's second novel, Murder at the Mendel, has been published and Seal paperback editions of it as well as Deadly Appearances have appeared in stores. This fall the third Joanne Kilbourn mystery, The Wandering Soul Murders, will arrive on the shelves. In the meantime, Bowen and her collaborator Ron Marken have written a play that will open at Regina's Globe Theatre this winter. "It's wonderful to be approaching 50 and doing something where you're the dumbest person in the room," she says about the workshopping process the play went through - and she is serving as co-host of CBC Saskatchewan's "Arts Column."

Bowen is an assistant professor of English at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, University of Regina, and a wife and mother of three. She also teaches Sunday school. As with so many mystery writers, the strength of Bowen's stories derives from the strength of her protagonist, Joanne Kilbourn, a character so credible and relevant that the Vancouver Joanne Kilbourn Fan Club trekked to Sechelt to talk with her creator.

Joanne Kilbourn is in her 40s and the mother of three teenagers. She has lived in Regina and Saskatoon. She is keenly interested in politics. She is bright, thoughtful, wryly entertaining, literate, level-headed, and teaches political science at a university. She is a serious cook. Her family comes first.

"Joanne sees herself as working out the answers to her life in community: with her children, with her friends, and with others who cross her path," Bowen says. "Unlike the fictional heroines of the American mystery writers Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, Joanne is not a lone wolf. Rather, life is a cooperative process, in that Joanne Kilbourn is very Canadian and very female. She is much like the women whom many of us count as friends. She is flawed and often uncertain, but she is also decent and principled, and she has what our grandmothers used to call 'a good heart."'

"In my life, my children have always been the balance and the joy," Bowen adds. "One of the reasons I wanted to give Joanne Kilbourn a family was that I was tired of seeing kids in fiction portrayed as know-it-alls and parasites. Our kids, like the kids of most people I know, are a source of fun in good times and comfort in bad times; I wanted to reflect that in my books."

That said, Bowen cheerfully admits that Joanne is her alter ego. The description of Bowen also works for Joanne, except for one pertinent fact: Joanne is a widow who, in the first two books, doesn't have any serious love life. Why? Because, Bowen says, striding exuberantly down a hilly Sechelt street, she felt it would be like being unfaithful to her husband Ted.

We're on our way to a bookstore to check out the painting that wraps the covers of Murder at the Mendel, which has just arrived, to see if a breast is showing - and indeed it is, which appeals to Bowen's commercial instincts. It was hard killing off Joanne's husband, who really wasn't needed for the development of her career as a reluctant sleuth. As Bowen was working it out on the page, the idea of being a widow shook her up and made her grateful for all she had. Toward Ted, she resolved to be kind, charitable, and sweet forever, a resolve that lasted, she concedes, for all of 20 minutes.

BORN AND RAISED in the west end of Toronto, Bowen answers a question about the origins of her writing by saying that for her, as with many writers, it was a prolonged childhood illness that stimulated her imagination. When she was four, she contracted polio and had a long convalescence at home. Her father made a kind of flannelgraph for her and she cut out figures from the Eaton's catalogue and invented stories about them.

The house built by her grandfather on Prescott Avenue was a full one and included an aunt and uncle, Bowen's parents and sister. Her grandmother, who lived with the family until she died, chose the job of keeping the furnace stoked with coal, and Bowen remembers her happily ensconced in the quiet basement, reading and smoking Black Cat Cork Tip cigarettes. From the time Bowen was old enough to make her way down the cellar stairs, her grandmother read to her. Finally, out of self-defence, Hilda Bartholomew -whose Christian name Bowen used for one of her favourite characters, Hilda McCourt -taught her to read. This grandmother, Bowen admits, was the most important adult during her growing-up years. She tells the story of Hilda Bartholomew returning to England with her two children after her husband was killed in the First World War. Realizing there wasn't much future for her children in England, she went back to Toronto, to the house on Prescott Avenue, where subsequently Bowen and her sister were raised. "I think coming back was a pretty gutsy decision," Bowen says. "But then her father had been a deep-sea diver, who died of the bends. I made my grandmother tell me the story of his death a thousand times. When they pulled him out of the water and took off his iron diving helmet, blood poured out of his ears and nose. A terrible story, but a great one, and my grandmother was a great storyteller."

While at St. Clement's School, Bowen decided to be a teacher because the French teacher had shoes to match every outfit. "When as a kid you wear black oxfords every day of your life, that's reason enough," she laughs. She fell into the English department at the University of Toronto for reasons "that again reflect chronic shallowness of character. In my second year 1 had to choose a major. In those days, people registered in person, and the boy ahead of me in the line asked what 1 was going to major in. 'Political science,'I said, to which he replied, 'That's no field for a girl. What's your second choice?' I said 1 guessed English. When the man at the registration desk asked, 'Major?' 1 said English. That moment changed my whole life. Scary, eh?"

BOWEN ADMITS she has had more luck than most in her writing. She started because she was asked to. Ron Marken, now chair of the English department at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, was an old friend of the Bowens. He was editing An Easterner's Guide to Western Canada/Westerner's Guide to Eastern Canada, an airport book, according to Bowen, that was supposed to be funny. When a lyrical, elegiac submission arrived from a Prairie writer who refused to change it, Marken was in a jam and called Gail Bowen to write a replacement. At the time she was running for a political nomination and was swamped, but "a friend is a friend," and she said yes.

For the piece she used the persona of a private schoolgirl transported to the wilds of rural Saskatchewan, writing to a friend in Toronto. The letter idea was her husband Ted's, a significant one, as it turned out. She signed the letter Hildy Rhodes, after her daughter Hildy and Nick Rhodes of the singing group Duran Duran, who, says Bowen, was Hildy's "big number" at the time. She went back to running for the nomination (which she lost) and forgot about writing.

Then she and Marken were asked by Western Producer Prairie Books to write an epistolary novel. In its final form, the book 1919 followed the relationship, in letters, of a young Saskatchewan farm boy who had been wounded in action and the 19-year-old volunteer nurse who became his friend at the convalescent hospital in Toronto.

Published in 1987, the book was pleasant but not, as Bowen says, earth-shattering. It got good reviews and vanished without a trace. But there's a kicker. Susan Ferley, artistic director of the Globe Theatre, discovered 1919 a year ago and asked Marken and Bowen if they were interested in adapting the book as a drama. They were. The play, Dancing in Poppies, will have its world premiere in mid-February next year.

Bowen started a sequel to 1919 but it didn't work out. She realized she wanted a character with whom she could feel truly comfortable. That's where Joanne Kilbourn came in.

In Deadly Appearances, Joanne has been writing speeches for Andy Boychuck, "every Ukrainian mother's dream," Prairie politician of great promise, a bright young leader of the opposition. In the opening scene, a picnic in King's Park, Boychuk is murdered. "To deal with this crisis in her life," writes Evette Signrowski of Carillon magazine, "she needs to reclaim the assurance that the world is a place that makes sense. In the hope that by understanding Andy's life, she can come to terms with his death, Joanne decides to write his biography. However, as she delves deeper into his past, she discovers his deeply hidden secrets" -and, of course, another murder.

In the second book, Murder at the Mendel, Joanne has moved to Saskatoon. Her childhood friend, the famous and controversial artist Sally Love, paints a 30-foot-long fresco in the Mendel Gallery that depicts the genitalia (male and female) of her lovers. Verne Clemence, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix book-review editor sums up the plot:

The subsequent demonstrations and battles over censorship, community standards and so on, form a backdrop for the resurrection of old skeletons from Love's family closets. Mixed with some contemporary loves and hates, including an unrequited lesbian affair, these old passions eventually lead to a string of murder cases which Kilbourn unravels.

Astute readers may notice, as at least one reviewer did, that the street names in Deadly Appearances have been switched: a few Saskatoon streets appear in Regina and vice versa. As a brand-new writer, Bowen admits sheepishly, she thought she could get sued for using names of actual streets. Yet it would be hard to find fiction as evocative of specific locations as the settings in Bowen's books. You know you're in Saskatchewan and you know the writer is in control of, for example, the details of the political scene, Ukrainian customs, the sense and feel of city life in the Prairies. You believe practically everything, which is why the books read like friendly novels that simply happen to have the explication of sudden death driving the narrative. Bowen's mysteries fall into the fictional mainstream that Robin Skelton writes about in "The Mystery Is the Medium" (Books in Canada, May 199 1). Indeed, Deadly Appearances was a finalist for the Smithbooks/Books; in Canada 1991 First Novel Award. Skelton writes that the contemporary crime novel while retaining the basic structure ... has moved away from the stereotypical settings of the past, and devotes a good deal of attention to exploring ... social and cultural patterns, and does so the more efficiently because there is a clear reason for the exploration, a passionate, ethical concern.

It is Joanne's passionate, ethical concern that brought the budding fan club - all women, I noticed - to Sechelt. As the jacket blurb to the hardcover edition of Deadly Appearances notes, Joanne, seeing her world threatened by chaos and violence, decides to take action to restore order and a measure of decency. She goes about solving the murders of her friends in a low-key, pit-bull-hanging-fast Canadian way. She's after the truth and the truth she will get. So engaging is Joanne that the film director Anne Wheeler (Bye, Bye Blues) plans to make a TV movie of the second book. She and her partner, Garth Hendren, think the character of Joanne will be an instant hit with viewers. Murder at the Mendel (Mendel is an actual art gallery in Saskatoon, by the way) is spicy, even racy, yet conservative and acceptable, all at once. The reader is not offended by Sally Love's fresco, the penises and vulvas identifiable, if the whispering and pointing of famous (and infamous) gallery-goers can be believed. Bowen can pull it off because Joanne is basically so damn decent. She herself, it would appear, has little to hide.

In The Wandenng Soul Murders, Bowen's latest novel, Joanne becomes involved in child prostitution. Readers will no doubt garner a great deal of valuable information about the topic as they enter a world dark and sad, not so middle class as in the earlier books. This one is the closest to Bowen's heart - the idea of anyone being cruel to children upsets her - and its working title was Next of Kin. Joanne starts to help the kids, but bad things happen; the subtext explores the question of obligation we have in being our sister's keeper and the unwitting harm that can be caused when a zealous do-gooder tries to help.

In 1968 the Bowens moved to Saskatchewan so Ted could teach at the university. They lived in the country, raised chickens, made their own beer and wine, and let their hair grow. The hours spent in the outdoor biffy (she was pregnant twice while they lived there) with the door open watching the Prairie might not seem like a preparation for writing, but for Bowen it was. "Light and darkness are big stuff in my books," she says.

She pauses to reflect. "I hope that my love for Regina comes through; it really is a wonderful place to live." Every day she walks to the university through Wascana Park. It's the time she has to herself to work out her writing. The rest of the time, she's on the go. "Being in graduate school when the kids were little was good training," Bowen grins. "I've learned to write everywhere, when I'm in the shower, while peeling spuds. I write for 10 minutes, then make a lunch; write for 10 minutes, talk to a kid. I've learned to grab whatever time's available, because that 'significant block of time' people keep alluding to doesn't seem to have my name on it."

She has worked for the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College for 12 years and says she couldn't have asked for a better job. "There's a lot of laughter where I work, and I like to laugh. There's also a strong reverence for the life of the spirit, and that matters to me too. All our meetings at the college begin and end with a prayer from the elders. I've learned a lot from the elders and from my colleagues and students. I'm still learning. This has been an exciting time for the Native people and I think it's been a great privilege to be part of it."

What is the secret of Bowen's success? Her sense of self isn't tied to writing, as it would have been, she says, when she was 19 or 29. Bowen didn't start to write until 1985, at the age of 43. She says she always mentions her age when she talks about writing because she believes that people assume if you haven't worked on a skill before 40, it's too late. "Writing isn't ballet," she adds. "I think that, in many ways, the muscles you need are just getting strong at 40. And at 49, you know the sun always rises, which in itself is liberating. It allows you to try things, take chances."

The person she has grown into and the circumstances of where and how she lives suit her. She wanted a protagonist she liked, and created Joanne Kilbourn, who, but for a few details, could be Gail Bowen. The secret of Gail Bowen's success: she likes her life.


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