Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some of the most interesting crime fiction can’t be easily put into one or another category or sub-genre. Rather, this kind of novel has elements of several sub-genres. That’s the sort of series that Vicki Delany writes. To see what I mean let’s take a look at the first in her Molly Smith series In the Shadow of the Glacier.
Constable Moonlight “Molly” Smith has recently begun her work on the beat in the small British Columbia town of Trafalgar where she grew up. She’s on her regular rounds one night when she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. She’s never encountered a murder victim before but she’s sure that Montgomery did not die of an accident. Sergeant John Winters is assigned to investigate Montgomery’s death and since his usual assistant Detective Lopez is leaving town to attend his daughter’s wedding, Winters is told to work with Molly Smith. Chief Constable Kelly’s reasoning for this is that Smith’s lived in Trafalgar all her life and knows everyone. She’ll therefore be able to provide a valuable angle on the investigation.
Winters doesn’t want to work with an inexperienced constable and he soon makes it clear that he doesn’t want much input from Smith. For her part, Smith is both thoroughly excited and extremely anxious about working this case. Her main goal is to make good. Together Winters and Smith start interviewing potential witnesses and talking to Montgomery’s widow Ellie as well as other people who knew and worked with the victim. Soon enough they have several avenues to explore.
For one thing it’s found that Ellie was having an affair with the local dentist so either of them could be the killer. For another Montgomery co-owned Grizzly Resort which is intended as an upmarket spa and hotel. Proponents of the resort believe that it’ll bring in more tourists and therefore much-needed money into the local economy. Opponents believe the resort will be terribly damaging to the environment and the local ecosystem. So, local politics could have played a role in Montgomery’s death. The picture is complicated by the recent death of Larry O’Reilly, an ex-pat American who came to Trafalgar to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. O’Reilly bequeathed quite a lot of money to Trafalgar on condition that it be used to create a memorial to those who defied the American Vietnam War draft and moved to Canada on principle. Many citizens want to create a Peace Garden to honour O’Reilly’s wishes. But proponents of the resort do not want the memorial constructed because they are afraid that it’ll drive away lucrative American trade.
That conflict and the murder bring in L.A. television journalist Rich Ashcroft, who sees the chance for a major boost to his ratings and his career if he can make much of the events in Trafalgar. And he wastes little time doing everything he can to stir up the conflict as much as possible.
In the midst of everything is Molly Smith, whose mother Lucy “Lucky” is one of the main advocates for the Peace Garden but whose job demands that she investigate the committee that’s pushing for the memorial. Smith’s job also means that she has to participate in investigating several people she’s known for a very long time. In the end, Smith and Winters find out the truth about Montgomery’s death and how it relates to the local political scene, a rash of stolen bikes and Smith herself.
This is in many ways a police procedural. So the plot operates in part within the context of collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and other police work. Readers also get a look at police politics as the local police interact with the RCMP and as Smith tries to carve out a role for herself in the investigation. But as I mentioned, this novel isn’t easily characterised. So there are also elements of other sub-genres. We see for instance just a touch of the cosy in Delany’s depiction of Trafalgar and its inhabitants. But you can’t really call this a cosy either as it’s a little edgier than many cosies tend to be. To me (so feel free to differ if you do) it’s a solid example of a novel that’s not squarely within a particular sub-genre.
Montgomery’s death has a reasonable explanation as do other events in the novel and the mystery is solved in believable ways. But that doesn’t mean that everyone lives “happily ever after.” So readers who prefer novels where all is well in the end will be disappointed. But we do find out the truth about Montgomery’s death, and I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that Molly Smith proves herself as a constable.
In the Shadow of the Glacier has several sub-plots. There’s the issue of the stolen bikes. There’s also a sub-plot involving Smith’s close friend Christa Thompson, who’s being stalked by Charlie Bassing. Thompson asks Smith for help in the matter and Smith urges her to swear out a complaint and request a restraining order. But as you might expect, things really aren’t that simple. Readers who prefer a linear plot in which the entire focus is on the main mystery will be disappointed. That said though, the various plot threads are maintained throughout the novel.
The conflict over the war in Vietnam and over Americans who went to Canada to avoid being drafted is an important element in the novel. Many people believe that draft resisters were traitors and should be excoriated. Many others believe that draft resisters were heroes who held to their principles and should be memorialised. It’s a controversial topic and Delany doesn’t trivialise it.
The characters in the novel form another very important element in it. For instance, there’s Molly’s mother Lucky and her father Andy, former hippies (hence Molly’s given name Moonlight) and ex-pat Americans who came to Canada when Andy was drafted. Lucky still maintains a lot of her strong hippie political views. Andy’s mellowed as you might say through the years. Their characters give an interesting perspective on issues of war, the peace movement and changes in political liberalism in the last decades.
There’s also of course the character of Molly Smith. She’s a young woman trying to carve out a role for herself in what was until very recently a man’s world and there is a not-so-subtle undercurrent of women’s issues in this novel. On the one hand, Smith is smart, thoughtful and proves herself to have courage. On the other, she’s inexperienced, sometimes awkward and a little uncomfortable about policing in the town she’s lived in all her life. She wants to make good and it’s not hard to wish her well as she does.
A final note is in order about the setting. Delany places the reader squarely in British Columbia in several ways. There is of course the physical setting but it’s more than that. As American Rich Ashcroft’s local contact Meredith Morgenstern keeps telling him,
“This is Canada.”
There are of course many cultures in Canada. This one – the culture of rural British Columbia – is distinctive and Delany makes that clear.
In The Shadow of the Glacier is a police procedural flavoured with a bit of cosy that details not just the investigation of a death but also the evolution of a new constable. It’s a uniquely Canadian story that treats some controversial and important themes. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Shadow of the Glacier? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 30 July/Tuesday 31 July – Inspector Ghote’s First Case – H.R.F. Keating
Monday 6 August/Tuesday 7 August – Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson
Monday 13 August/Tuesday 14 August – White Sky, Black Ice – Stan Jones