Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The figure of the lonely, tortured, probably alcoholic detective has become so common in crime fiction that it’s now nearly cliché. That’s why it’s so refreshing to read about a sleuth who doesn’t fit that stereotype. Such a sleuth is Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn, who’s had her share of sadness, but is hardly what you’d call “tortured.” To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at the first of Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn novels, Deadly Appearances.
The story begins on a hot August day when Androu “Andy” Boychuk is scheduled to make an appearance at a community picnic. Boychuk has just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition party, but it wasn’t without a fight, and besides, there are several questions about the suitability of his wife Eve to be a strong politician’s wife. So this picnic is intended to introduce Boychuk as the new party leader, get people to support him and lay to rest any questions about whether he’ll be able to lead his party to success in the next elections. All is going very well at the picnic until Boychuk gets up to make a speech and suddenly collapses. Joanne Kilbourn is a Regina political science professor and a close personal friend of Boychuk’s. She worked on his campaign and actually wrote the speech he’s about to give when he dies. When Boychuk is pronounced dead, she is devastated. His loss is made worse for Kilbourn because it echoes the murder of her husband politician Ian Kilbourn, who was killed by a teenager when he wouldn’t give his murderer and the killer’s girlfriend a ride to a party. Now Kilbourn has to face the sense of deep loss all over again.
As a way of making the world a sane place again and rebuilding, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk, and she’s in a good position to do so. She’s known him and his wife for a long time and she’s experienced in Saskatchewan politics, so she’s got the connections she needs to write such a book. As she begins to trace Boychuk’s life, though, she finds that Boychuk was a much more complex person than she’d thought, and there were sides to his life that she’d never known.
Kilbourn is starting to sort out what she’s learned about her friend when she gets a call from Eve Boychuk. There’s been another murder and Eve is suspected of it and with good reason. She wants Kilbourn’s help and Kilbourn agrees to do what she can although she’s not a cop. This second murder is connected with Boychuk’s murder, and Kilbourn begins to try to untangle the threads of the mystery to find out who would have wanted both victims to die.
Kilbourn’s investigation becomes complicated when she begins to fall ill. She has strange and very real symptoms, so she goes for a complete physical, only to be told it’s “all in her mind.” Now she has to battle her illness as well as deal with Boychuk’s loss and what she is learning about his death. In the end, Kilbourn finds out who committed both murders and learns that both murders have their roots in the past.
The mystery in this novel is believable and when we know who the killer is, the motive makes sense. It’s got just a touch of the “impossible mystery” to it, too, since Boychuk is poisoned right in front of a large audience with no-one knowing at first how and by whom. The murderer isn’t obvious, but Bowen “plays fair” with the reader. Kilbourn figures out the truth in a logical way and using information that the reader gets as well.
That said, though, there are several other important elements in this novel. One of them is the “inside view” we are given of Saskatchewan politics. It’s politics at the local and provincial levels and that “behind the scenes” perspective provides a believable context for the novel. The background of electioneering adds a layer of interest to the story, too, as the reader gets to see how the political process works.
Another important element in the novel is the Saskatchewan setting. Nearly all of the novel takes place in that province and it’s not just the political aspect of it that places the reader there. Bowen uses effective details to give the reader a strong sense of the setting:
“Disciples is a restaurant on the Trans-Canada Highway just outside Wolf River…if you’re serious about food, it’s worth the forty-mile drive from the city [Regina] to sit at their gleaming white Formica tables drinking coffee and eating the pie of the day.”
“I looked at the scorched fields and the stunted crops – there wouldn’t be many farmers in our province reciting odes to the maturing sun this fall. It had rained on and off for a week after Andy’s funeral, but the earth had sucked up the moisture without a trace. The rain had come late and the land had been dry. Still, Keats could have made a poem of this morning – brilliant sun, the sky lifting big and blue against the land. It was, I reminded myself as I drove slowly and safely off the Belle Plaine overpass, a good day to be alive.”
It’s an authentic look at life in Saskatchewan.
Bowen also gives readers an interesting look at the Ukrainian community in the province. Boychuk has a strong Ukrainian background and in fact, his funeral is held at a Ukrainian Orthodox church. Kilbourn spends time with Boychuk’s mother Roma Boychuk as she learns about her friend’s background, and we learn, too, about that community:
“Further out, towards the railway station, is the area called the Junction. It’s a neighbourhood of onion-domed churches and mom-and-pop grocery stores with names like Molynkas or Federko’s.”
This perspective also adds some depth to what we learn about Boychuk’s character.
And characters play a central role in this novel. As we learn about Boychuk’s character, we slowly see that he was multidimensional and complex. That makes him all the more interesting. Eve Boychuk, too, is fascinating as a character. At once strong and fragile, she’s a lot more canny than anyone thinks at first and there’s much more to her than meets the eye, so to speak. We can truly feel for her as she has to deal with being a public figure (when she never wanted to be one), losing her husband in so public a way, and then being charged with murder. She’s got interesting layers to her character.
Kilbourn herself is an appealing character. She is in many ways an ordinary person, but that adds to her appeal. She’s not beautiful (although she’s attractive enough), and although she’s intelligent and perceptive, she’s also not a superhero. She struggles to cope with life as the single mother of three children, one of whom is off to university. She makes mistakes, has vulnerable moments, and is as afraid as anyone might be when her health fails. It’s not at all hard to cheer for her as she works through her own pain and tries to find out what happened to her friend. One important reason for that is that she is a strong character. She doesn’t ask us to feel sorry for her, even at her sickest.
It’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t a story about a dysfunctional, traumatised family with out-of-control children. Readers who are looking for that kind of family will be disappointed because the Kilbourn family copes well. Mieka, the oldest, is mature, ready for university and gets along very well with her mother. Peter and Angus, the other two children, are, if there is such a thing, normal teens. They leave messes, they sometimes argue and so on, but they are well-adjusted children.
This isn’t what you would call a light mystery. There are moments of real darkness and pain and the secrets that Kilbourn finds out are very painful. Kilbourn’s mysterious illness is both frightening and suspenseful, too. But there are moments of welcome humour that come up in different places. For instance, at one point, Kilbourn decides to make the drive from Regina to Saskatoon to visit someone who knew Boychuk as a teen and can shed light on his past. While there, she decides to pay a surprise visit to Mieka, who’s started life as a university student. Unfortunately, she comes in at a very embarrassing moment for Mieka and her boyfriend Greg, and Bowen describes the awkwardness gently but effectively.
A believable and engaging mystery that takes place in a unique and interesting context, Deadly Appearances features a likeable sleuth and some rich characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Deadly Appearances? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 26 March/Tuesday 27 March – The Case of the Velvet Claws – Erle Stanley Gardner
Monday 2 April/Tuesday 3 April – Don’t Look Back – Karin Fossum
Monday 9 April/Tuesday 10 April – Cop Hater – Ed McBain