Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. A death in the family – especially an unexpected death – can wreak havoc on those left behind. Even after the healing begins, things are never the same. Since many crime novels have to do with murder and sudden death, it makes sense that we would see portrayals of families coping with that loss in the genre. Let’s take a look at such a novel, and turn the spotlight on Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, the 2017 winner of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, Best Novel. This is the third of Morrissey’s novels to feature Sylvanus Now.
As the novel begins, it’s been three years since the death of Sylvanus and Addie Now’s son, Chris. He died in a tragic oil rig accident in Alberta, and the family (Sylvanus, Addie, and their other children, Sylvie and Kyle) has been devastated. Sylvanus has taken to drinking; and, much as Addie loves her husband, she’s getting fed up. Kyle finds it difficult to deal with his loss and grief, and Sylvie hasn’t really been back to the family home since Chris died.
Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is murdered. The police begin to investigate, and they find no shortage of suspects. Gillard was abusive to his wife, Bonnie, and malicious, even cruel, to plenty of other people in this small community in Newfoundland. No-one will miss him.
Soon, though, the evidence begins to suggest that one of the members of the Now family might be guilty. Sylvanus had an argument with the victim shortly before his death, and it wouldn’t be out of character for Gillard to have come back later to ‘finish matters,’ and Sylvanus to stand up for himself. Gillard attacked Kyle, too, and he could have retaliated. And then there’s Addie’s friendship with Bonnie. Could she have killed Gillard to save her friend? There are other possibilities, too.
As the Now family copes with all of this suspicion, they also face another challenge: Addie is diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s at the stage where it can be handled surgically, but even so, it’s a terrible hurdle to face. Still, it brings the members of the family back together, and forces them to face their grief, guilt, and pain over Chris’ death.
Little by little, as the truth about Gillard’s murder comes out, we also learn some other truths that have been kept hidden. And in the end, the members of the Now family find ways to reach out to each other. And that, in its turn, helps their healing process.
This is, in its way, a whodunit. So, an important element in the novel is the slow process of working out who was where, at what time, who had an alibi, and so on. And that’s not easy. This is a small community (more about that community shortly), and everyone knows everyone. There are a lot of longstanding friendships, and people don’t want to see their friends/cousins/etc. arrested. Besides, Gillard was, to say the least, not well-liked. So, there’s no great outcry for justice, if I can put it that way. Some of the characters don’t tell the police everything (or anything) they know. Still, the police are skilled, and they do get to the truth about what happened.
The story is told from Kyle Now’s point of view (third person, past tense), so we see everything through his eyes. This gives readers an intimate look at the Now family, and the way they’re coping (or not) with Chris’ loss. Kyle carries a great deal of grief and guilt, although he is not responsible for what happened to his brother. And that has a real impact on how he sees the world. He’s no longer a child, but he’s not mature yet. And there are several things he doesn’t know about some of the characters, including members of his own family. So, in a way, you might argue that there’s a hint of the unreliable narrator about him. That said, though, as the story goes on, he learns some of those truths, and does some growing.
So do the other members of the Now family. An important element in the novel is the way the family deals with Chris’ death. It’s a devastating blow for all of them, and each has coped in a different way. As the novel goes on, the family pulls together a bit, and it’s clear that each of them cares a great deal for the others. Despite the sorrow and sadness, this family is a unit. I can say without spoiling the story that everyone does some healing. Morrissey doesn’t offer an ‘everything is perfectly fine now,’ sort of ending. It isn’t fine. But by the end of the novel, the different family members can talk about what happened, and support each other.
Another very important element in the novel is its setting. The novel takes place in The Beaches, Newfoundland, and Morrissey places the reader there in several ways. The physical setting, the language patterns, the culture, and the interactions are all distinctive. And the Now family is very much a part of this context.
The Fortunate Brother is the story of a family coming to terms with a tragic loss. It’s also the story of what happens to a small community when one of its members is murdered. It takes place in a unique cultural setting, and features a young man who’s trying to make sense of the things he’s learning about himself, his family, and his home town. But what’s your view? Have you read The Fortunate Brother? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 15 January/Tuesday, 16 January – Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm – Gil North
Monday, 22 January/Tuesday, 23 January – Killer Instinct – Zoë Sharp
Monday, 29 January/Tuesday, 30 January – Sold – Blair Denholm