Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. British Columbia (BC) is not just a beautiful part of Canada; it also has a rich and interesting history. To get a sense of that part of Canada, let’s turn the spotlight on Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, which takes place in 1868 and 1869.
Chad Hobbes has recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and has just arrived in Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction to the Governor, he is given a job as a police constable, under the command of Augustus Pemberton. At first, the job consists mostly of guard duty, settling drunken quarrels, and the occasional removal of local prostitutes.
Then one day, a group of Tsimshian Indians, who were in the area to sell their handmade goods, comes to the courthouse with horrible news. They’ve discovered the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, it seems that this will be an easy case. It turns out that McCrory had been involved with Lukswaas, one of the Tsimshian women. Her partner Wiladzap is one of the leaders of this group, and it’s assumed that he killed McCrory, both as an act of vengeance and to assert his leadership. Wiladzap denies being the killer, and Lukswaas supports him.
As a matter of form, the police have to conduct an investigation, more to prove that they are even-handed than to actually find out whether they’re right in their theory. So Hobbes is given the job of asking perfunctory questions of anyone who might have known the victim. As he does so, he learns more about McCrory.
It turns out that McCrory was an American who billed himself as an ‘alienist,’ a psychiatrist during the days before the development of modern psychological and psychiatric science. He also claimed to be a mesmerist and phrenologist. As Hobbes talks to the people who interacted with the victim, he gets a clearer picture of the kind of man McCrory was. The victim, Hobbes learns, gave lectures on mesmerism, and also saw private patients. Most of these were people with psychological complaints (what we would now consider depression). Hobbes learns from these patients that McCrory’s ‘treatments’ very often consisted of what today we’d call sexual abuse of patients. In fact, he was obsessed with sexuality, much as Freud would be some fifty years later.
The more Hobbes discovers about McCrory, the more likely killers there are, and it’s not just because of McCrory’s approaches to psychological treatment. He had a certain magnetism, but wasn’t what you’d call an ethical, ‘upstanding’ person. In fact, he has a rather dubious history. Little by little, Hobbes gets to know the people involved with McCrory, and puts together the evidence. In the end, he finds out the truth about the man’s death.
One of the most important elements in this novel is its sense of time and place. The novel’s setting is Victorian British Columbia, a frontier of the Empire. The local culture is a mix of British tradition, some American influence, and a pragmatic local approach to life. There are dance halls, drinking places, and sailors. There’s also a cultural mix of English, American, Chinese, and Indian people. And we see the customs and lifestyle of the late 19th Century in that part of Canada.
Along with that is a strong sense of prejudice about social and ethnic class, particularly about Indians. One of the reasons for which the police aren’t in a great hurry to investigate this case is that they assume that an Indian would willingly act with savagery. They think they have the right man because they assume that’s the kind of person he is, no matter what he says. And throughout the novel, there are clearly stated assumptions about the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of Indians, on just about every level. Even Hobbes starts with those assumptions. There are also Victorian beliefs about what men and women ‘should’ be like, as well as assumptions about Blacks, Chinese, and other non-majority groups. We may find those beliefs offensive today, but they are the opinions of that time.
One of the important debates of that era was over Charles Darwin’s theories about the development and preservation of species. Those theories sparked (still do!) real controversy about the nature of humans and the relationship between humans and other animals. There were all sorts of philosophical, political, social and religious facets to the questions Darwin’s work raised, and this novel explores them. Hobbes is a former Divinity student who wrestles with the religious beliefs he grew up with; he no longer subscribes to them, but they still affect his thinking. His reflections and the viewpoints of other characters in this novel provide a look at the way different people of this era regarded Darwin.
Hobbes’ struggle with these larger questions, and his search for the truth about McCrory’s murder, lead him to try to get to know the Tsimshian better. Through his experiences with those people, readers learn a little more about them, too. Haldane doesn’t depict the Tsimshian as ‘noble savages;’ of course as a culture they are more complicated than that image would have us believe. At the same time though, Hobbes also learns that they are much more than what the local Whites think of them.
Hobbes is also motivated by his growing feeling for Lukswaas. He’s uneasy around women, mostly because of the conflicting messages he’s gotten about them. He’s attracted to them, being heterosexual; but at the same time, all of the religious views he’s heard warn him about them, especially if they are Indian. That mixed message about women and the roles they should play also has an impact on other characters (of both sexes).
The novel isn’t what you’d call a police procedural, although Hobbes is a constable. It’s an unusual story in that sense; law enforcement is an important element in the novel, but Hobbes and his colleagues don’t use the techniques we might find familiar from more contemporary novels. And Hobbes isn’t an ordinary police sleuth. He’s somewhat of a philosopher as well as a student of the law.
The story doesn’t move at breakneck pace. It’s slower and more thoughtful; readers who prefer thrillers and other fast-moving crime fiction will notice this. It’s also worth noting that McCrory’s murder is brutal and Haldane doesn’t sugarcoat it. That said though, the murder takes place ‘off stage.’
The Devil’s Making is a close look at colonial life in the mid-19th Century. It features a visually beautiful setting and a context that includes several different groups of people. And its focus is an unusual sleuth who’s trying to make sense of his New World experience. But what’s your view? Have you read The Devil’s Making? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 25 May/Tuesday 26 May – In the Blood – Lisa Unger
Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton
Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green