Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Small-town mysteries allow authors the opportunity to explore characters’ relationships, histories and interactions in ways that aren’t always as easy in stories that are set in cities or larger towns. And small town settings can be at least as suspenseful as city settings. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at Nelson Brunanski’s small-town Saskatchewan series. Let’s turn the spotlight on Crooked Lake, the first in that series.
Nick Taylor is Head Greenskeeper at Saskatechewan’s Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. One morning he gets a notice from the Board of Directors of the golf course telling him that he’s being separated. Taylor is understandably furious, especially since he sees no glaring cause for being fired. He’s made his share of mistakes but he doesn’t feel they’re serious enough for this. Believing that he’s being ‘railroaded,’ Taylor blames Board member Harvey Kristoff, who’s never liked him and who’s been looking for a reason to fire him. That afternoon, Kristoff’s bludgeoned body is discovered next to the green on the seventh hole. The RCMP begin their investigation and it’s only a short time before they find out about Taylor’s termination and his anger at Kristoff.
One of the first people the police talk to is Taylor’s long-time friend John ‘Bart’ Bartowski, who with his wife Rosie owns Stuart Lake Lodge. Bart was one of the last people to see and speak to Taylor before the murder, so his insights into Taylor’s state of mind are important. He doesn’t want to believe his friend is guilty of murder, but there is solid evidence. For one thing, the golf club that served as the murder weapon turns out to belong to Taylor. What’s more, Taylor’s wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. There’s also of course the matter of Taylor’s firing. Still, Taylor is Bart’s close friend, so when Frank Hendrickson, Taylor’s lawyer, asks for Bart’s help, he’s only too happy to oblige.
It’s not long before Bart begins to really doubt his friend’s guilt so he starts asking questions. He soon finds that more than one person had a good reason to murder Kristoff. Crooked Lake being the small town that it is, it’s no time at all before the killer finds out that Bart’s being a little too curious. After a few frightening incidents, one of them life-threatening, Rosie begs her husband to leave the matter alone. The police haven’t been any too happy about his meddling anyway, and even Bart admits he should listen to his wife. But he feels a strong obligation to Taylor, in part because of their long friendship, in part because he doesn’t think Taylor’s guilty and in part because Taylor once saved his life. So he pushes on and in the end (and after another death) he’s able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
One of the most important elements in this novel is its setting and context. This story takes place in a small northern Saskatchewan town and everything about it is flavoured with that culture. Everyone knows everyone, people have long histories together going back to school days, and lots of things are done quite informally. Those relationships and the histories of the characters play important roles in the novel too, and the fact that everyone knows everyone adds to the suspense because it’s soon clear that there’s a murderer among them.
We also get a strong sense of the rhythm of life in this part of the province. Brunanski uses subtle but real details to give the reader a sense of the culture:
‘Most of us small town Saskatchewan folk eat the main meal of the day at noon, dinner we call it.’
This and other nuances show rather than tell the reader what the place and people are like.
The character of Bart Bartowski fits in with this setting and is another important element in the novel. Bart is intelligent and observant, but he’s a ‘regular guy.’ He knows everyone in town, he’s got the same larger concerns that other people have, and he certainly doesn’t set out to ‘play hero.’ He’s as scared as anyone might be when his life is endangered, and he’s extremely uncomfortable at feeling caught between his loyalty to his friend and his feeling that he is in, as the saying goes, way over his head.
Bart has a good relationship with his wife Rosie and although it’s tested in this novel, it’s refreshingly durable and strong. He’s a loving father of Annie, who’s at university and Stuart, who’s twelve. There’s a sub-plot in this novel that involves his family and, without giving away spoilers, I can say that it shows Bart is a caring family man.
Although this novel features an amateur sleuth, the police are not made out to be thick-headed or uncaring. They honestly believe they have the right man and they have good reason for that. Once they’re convinced that Bart is neither covering for Nick Taylor nor guilty himself, they’re as much concerned for his safety as for anything else. And their treatment of the crimes is authentic.
There’s a thread of humour in this novel too, although I wouldn’t exactly call it a ‘light’ novel:
‘Besides my comfortable old sofa, the loft houses the family computer. Now, call me a Luddite, but I don’t like it. And do you know why I don’t like it? Because the damn thing sucks up time like a Hoover sucks up dirt. Our twelve-year-old is a testament to that. Stuart can spend five hours straight on a Saturday playing games on the thing. His favourite is something called Hard Times, a 3-D murder fest as far as I can tell. Anyway, you can keep the modern gadgetry.’
As you can tell, the wit is a gently self-deprecatory but Bart is certainly not self-recriminating. And some of the scenes where he tries to get back into Rosie’s good graces when she’s miffed are funny. Or maybe that’s because I’ve been married a while too.
The mystery itself makes sense and so does the way in which Bart finds out the truth. The solution isn’t obvious, but it fits with the people involved. The reader can imagine a killer striking in the way and for the reason that this killer does.
Crooked Lake is a crime novel. It’s also an authentic look at life in that part of Saskatchewan. The story, the characters and the pace fit with the context, and especially so does Bart Barkowski. It’s not hard to wish him well as he searches for the truth. But what’s your view? Have you read Crooked Lake? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 10 June/Tuesday 11 June – The Lodger – Marie Belloc Lowndes
Monday 17 June/Tuesday 18 June – The Penguin Pool Murder – Stuart Palmer
Monday 24 June/Tuesday 25 June – Violent Exposure – Katherine Howell