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An Original
by Douglas Hill

TO BEGIN, a pair from Newfoundland, where writing novels seems to have replaced chasing seals as a supplementary occupation. Both Alan Fisk's The Strange Things of This World (Harry Cuff Publications, 150 pages, $9.95 paper) and Ishmael Baksh's Black Light (Jesperson Press, 255 pages, $12.95 paper) are cleanly written, well?thought?out books that accomplish their modest aims with modest success. Neither, however, rises far above competence.

Fisk has chosen to dramatize the account (from Richard Hakluyt's Voyages) of a three?month trip to Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland organized by one "Master Hore of London" in 1536. 'Me purpose of this expedition was ambiguous; the members of the poorly equipped party were an assortment of the experienced and the ignorant. Fisk's narrator is Thomas Buts, the last survivor of the voyage, who tells his story in the novel, as he did in the 1580s, to Hakluyt. The material is intrinsically interesting; it's fleshed out by a not very exciting controversy among partisans of the Church of Rome and the Church of England.

Black Light is the story of Nazrul Khan, a Trinidadian educated in England and Alberta, who teaches in the Faculty of Education at a university in St. John's. The foreground of the novel concentrates on Khan's problems with his colleagues and the two young women (graduate students both) with whom he is romantically involved. Several chapters of flashbacks detail Khan's childhood and adolescence in Trinidad. The underlying theme, clearly announced and delineated, is racism; Baksh treats his hero's difficulties sensitively and intelligently. The novel's intentions and attitudes are unexceptionable; as fiction, unfortunately, these pages lack life, lack imaginative sparkle.

Baksh's prose, though correct to a fault, is slow?moving and relentlessly without humour, without irony, without any perspective or distance at all on the subjects it treats. An academic novel, Black Light exhibits all the advertised virtues of academic life: long?windedness, inefficiency, the urge to exalt the importance of institutional politics and personality conflicts, the tendency to take everything, especially oneself, with utter unblinking seriousness. The reader follows Khan into and out of a department chairmanship, and out of one love affair and into another, with a sense of duty that too quickly turns to boredom. The issues in the book are real and certainly worth discussing; they simply aren't transmuted here into art. C. P. Snow tackled situations like this half a dozen times; ponderous as he could be, he knew how to keep the petty and the profound in balance, and the results were memorable.

Next, two mysteries that employ the same basic plot: members of a conspicuous group of people are getting bumped off, in a conspicuously odd way, by a killer or killers with a grudge. For AE. Eddenden, in A Good Year for Murder (Academy Chicago, 178 pages, $22.95), the victims are the public officials of Fort York, Ontario, a city that resembles Hamilton in most particulars. For Anthony Quogan, in The Fine Art of Murder (Collins, 255 pages, $22.95), the bodies belong to the members of an undergraduate drama class at an Ontario university that, except for its fictional location 40 miles west of Toronto, might be windswept York. Both novels are successful entertainments, witty, suspenseful, and written with style.

Eddenden sets his action in 1940; time and place give a pleasant feel of bygone days, all parades and municipal picnics, Scouts on bicycles, euchre on Saturday nights in the boarding?house kitchen. When someone begins to eliminate the Fort York City Council at the rate of one a month, always on a holiday and always with a poetically apt weapon, Traffic Inspector Albert Tretheway and his sidekick Constable Jake Small are thrust into action. The novel has a number of amusing characters (start with 300?pound Albert and his large sister Addie), though for some tastes the humour may be a bit arch and the mock?Dickensian playfulness with names and mannerisms a trifle too archaically British. But perhaps Hamilton in 1940 was like that. A Good Year for Murder is tightly plotted and full of enjoyable touches; the ending throws a nice early?MichaelInnes twist.

Quogan's tale has a contemporary setting. Matthew Prior, a fortyish English playwright whose successes have been modest and whose love?life is stalled, decides to accept an offer of a visiting professorship at Wacousta University in Mapleville, Ontario. There he finds a predictable but quite plausible assortment of staff and students and a chance to introduce his inchoate workin progress (called Armageddon Excuse?Me Fox?Trot) in public performance. But his cast soon begins to dwindle alarmingly; the weapons here all have some bizarre sexual link (one student, for example, is bludgeoned to death with a petrified elephant penis), and a bit of a photograph of the victim is always left at the scene. Prior has been mixed up in solving a crime before; now in order to help Inspector Murdoch Bain and Sergeant Stan. Kozetsky of the Ontario Provincial Police, he must discover both motive and murderer. And the show, of course, must go on.

The Fine Art of Murder mounts an extremely complicated plot, with clues scattered everywhere and false trails leading off in several directions. Though Quogan plays fast and loose with some of the conventions of the genre and lets his story slip out of focus now and then, most of the time he keeps everything moving along steadily. This is no mean feat, since the novel is packed with charming if occasionally digressive details of food and drink, geography and culture, CanLit history, university behaviour and much else. 'Me style is sophisticated, and there is no shortage of snappy dialogue. Characterization is solid; Matthew Prior himself stands comparison with one of Malcolm Bradbury's or David Lodge's self?destructive academics. The book is leisurely, literary, full of familiar textures and types and, in the intricacies of its denouement (and like Michael Innes once again), almost wholly improbable. In other words, good fun.

The Stalking Horse, by Brendan Howley (Random House, 280 pages, $22.95), is an above?average example of another commercial genre, the post?Cold?War mole?and?spook spy thriller. This one's expertly, if a bit conventionally written; there's considerable stylization in its characters and in the convolutions of its plot. Howley has obviously gone to school with the masters of this sort of novel.

Still, a clone is a clone, no matter how expertly it's fitted out. The Stalking Horse is well?managed entertainment, no doubt about that, but having read virtually this same book a dozen times in the past year, I was, you will understand, eager for the last page.

David Homel's Electrical Storms (Random House, 161 pages, $21.95) also has a large crew of fictional siblings, but this thorough assay of a chunk of adolescence stands out from the crowd of aspiring little Catchers in the Rye for its casual structure, energetic prose, carefully controlled tone, and authentic surfaces. The novel is set in a grimy working?class suburb of Chicago at the end of the 1960s; Vinnie Rabb, Homel's engaging first?person narrator, describes the temper of his times and recounts a summer at the end of high school when the American (Teenage) Dream started to disintegrate.

The novel begins as a humorous anthropological survey, a sort of Introduction To Sex And Society 101. Vinnie and his friends work, drink, make love, goof around. Vietnam looms in the near distance. Pleasant enough. But when members of the gang witness a violent crime, for which they feel partly responsible, and conceal their knowledge, happy days become hard nights. There is a fair amount of perceptive analysis of behaviour and emotions here; Vinnie is intelligent and, with his friends, sarcastically sensitive to the pressures that build for them all.

The situation comes to a high?voltage climax a year later, when the group cooks up a plan for transferring their collective guilt and the United States decides, to bomb Cambodia. Homel's ending, for me, was something of a cop?out, but I had fun getting there. Vinnie possesses a splendidly flexible voice for the job the author wants him to carry out. He's an impudent, sardonic, compassionate, confused young man, and every bit of that shows in his narrative. The actual events of the novel are too much like adolescent wish?fulfilment for my taste; Electrical Storms comes to resemble a Hardy Boys romp with real blood, whimsical sex courtesy of Richard Brautigan. But I could listen to Vinnie talk and worry and crack jokes any time at all. He's an original.


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