Category Archives: Ian Hamilton

Learned Karate and Kung Fu*

Despite what’s portrayed in many action films, martial arts involve a lot more than just smacking and kicking someone. In fact, the whole point of skill at martial arts is careful self-control (rather than simply lunging at someone) and mind/body connection. Because of that, traditional martial arts are holistic; they involve meditation, breath control, and coordinated movements, among other things.

Most traditional martial arts take years to learn properly, and even longer to perfect, and people have been doing just that for many centuries.  So, it’s little wonder that we see martial arts and those who know them in crime fiction. When it’s done well (i.e. credibly), some skill at martial arts can add a layer to a character.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he’s got an eclectic set of skills and knowledge. One of them is bartitsu (Conan Doyle called it ‘baritsu’), which is a mix of martial arts styles, including jiu jitsu and other techniques. Interestingly, bartitsu was developed in the UK at the end of the 19th Century and gained in popularity during the Edwardian Era. As Holmes fans know, he uses bartitsu to defend himself during the climactic fight with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. That, so he tells Watson in The Adventure of the Empty House, is how he managed to stay alive.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a member of the Violent Crimes Division of the Göteborg police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion. While she no longer competes, she is a regular at the local dojo. She knows that keeping mind and body healthy and connected is important, and she uses her judo sessions to keep in shape and to cope with the stress of being a police detective with a busy family life. She passes along her interest in martial arts to her daughter, Katarina, who studies for several years herself. Later, Katarina becomes more interested in dance than in judo but her years of study have taught her valuable skills.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao is a detective for the Shanghai police. As a young person, he studied tai chi, as many people do, and tried his best to learn. But tai chi didn’t come easily to him (as I say, martial arts is complex). As we learn in A Loyal Character Dancer, he didn’t continue his martial arts study, but he did happen to find an old English textbook in the park where he was practicing one day and found both an interest and an ability with language. Chen hasn’t continued studying tai chi, but he respects those who have mastered it. Here’s a bit of his thinking (also from A Loyal Character Dancer) as he sees a man doing tai chi in a park one day:
 

‘Chief Inspector Chen wondered what he might have become had he persisted in practicing. Perhaps he would now be like that tai chi devotee, wearing a white silk martial arts costume, loose-sleeved, red-silk buttoned, with a peaceful expression on his face. Chen knew him. An accountant in an almost-bankrupt state company, yet at that moment, a master moving in perfect harmony with the qi of the universe.’
 

That harmony and self-control is an important aspect of traditional martial arts.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is following ‘money trails’ to locate funds that people have tried to hide. She works for a Hong Kong-based company that serves people who’ve been cheated out of money and are desperate to get it back. For those clients, the financial loss is devastating on several levels; and for various reasons, they may not be able to (or wish to) go through the usual channels. So, by word of mouth, they learn of and contact Lee’s employer. The people who have stolen that money generally don’t want to be caught, so they can be very dangerous. Lee’s prepared, though. She is an expert at bak mei, a special form of martial arts that makes particular use of the hands. More than once in the series, she makes use of her skill at bak mei and other martial arts.

And then there’s Zoë Sharp’s novels featuring Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. She’s a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, where she learned martial arts. She left the military, but she still makes use of her knowledge. For one thing, she teaches what she knows to others, especially women. The idea is to help them develop not just the ability to defend themselves, but also the confidence that goes with it. Here’s what she has to say about it:
 

‘I view self-defence like wearing an expensive watch. You don’t keep flashing it about trying to impress people. Instead, you keep it up your sleeve, but in the back of your mind you have the confidence of knowing you have the exact time whenever you need it.’ 
 

And Fox has certainly had need of her skills. She’s a PI who sometimes gets into very dangerous situations. Like most of those who are skilled at martial arts, especially traditional martial arts, she begins by trying to defuse the situation. The goal is not to have to use her skills if it can be avoided. But she knows what to do if it can’t.

And that’s the thing about traditional martial arts, especially if they are taught, learned, and used effectively. The whole point is not to have to use them in the first place. But there are times when they come in very handy…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Handsome Devil’s Samurai.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Helene Tursten, Ian Hamilton, Qiu Xiaolong, Zoë Sharp

It’s the Spirit of the Underdog*

For a lot of people, there’s just something about the ‘underdog.’ You know the sort of character I mean. Outgunned, as the saying goes, but not willing to give up the fight. Sometimes we cheer for the underdog because we want a fair fight; we want everyone to have a sporting chance. Other times, it’s because the underdog happens to be right, and we want right to prevail. There are other reasons, too, that people seem to love underdogs.

That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is anywhere else. And having a character in the role of underdog can add a layer of character development. It can also invite readers to invest themselves in a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with practically nothing. Still, she’s young and somewhat adventurous. One day, she happens to witness a tragic death at an underground station when an unknown man falls under an oncoming train. Naturally, she’s upset at the death, but she gets curious about a piece of paper that falls from among the dead man’s possessions. After a short time, she works out that the writing on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, she books passage on the ship, and is soon drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. She’s up against considerable danger and a powerful enemy. But, although she’s far from perfect, she does have appeal. And part of that comes from the fact that she’s the underdog.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee knows all too well what it’s like to work with underdogs. In fact, he prefers them. McGee is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ based in Lauderdale, Florida. He works with people who’ve been robbed and need to get their property back. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, and they don’t generally have money to spend on expensive PIs. McGee doesn’t charge a fee per se. Instead, he takes half of whatever he recovers for his clients. And for those down-and-out clients, it’s a bargain at twice the price, as the saying goes. And McGee is scrupulous about letting his clients know his terms before he goes to work for them. He has a soft spot for those who’ve been ‘taken’ by the corrupt, the dishonest, and the powerful. And that adds a layer to his character. It also invites readers to invest themselves in what happens to his clients.

The same might be said of the clients we meet in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series. Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is finding money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong based company that recovers stolen money. This company’s clients have been swindled, often of large amounts of money, and are desperate to get their money back. Most have no other options. And, much of the time, those who’ve stolen the money are well-heeled, well-protected, and formidable opponents. So, Lee is quite familiar with taking the underdog’s side against a strong adversary. But, she’s no slouch herself…

Fans of C.J.Box’s Joe Pickett will know that he’s often a sort of underdog. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden who often goes up against dangerous and powerful opponents. He does have the force of law on his side, but he’s also learned the law can be for sale. So, he sometimes finds himself very much on his own, going against wealthy developers, well-armed drugs and animal traffickers, and so on. His status as the underdog arguably adds to his character, and invites readers to care what happens to him, especially readers who don’t care much for big business and corruption.

Fans of legal mysteries and courtroom thrillers can tell you that the ‘underdog lawyer’ is a very popular plot point in such stories. There are lots of examples; I’ll just share two. I know you can offer lots more examples than I could.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed isn’t really, strictly speaking, a legal novel. But it does have an important legal dimension to it. Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan has been arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. He’s scheduled to be executed in a matter of weeks. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks his former friend Douglas Brodie to try to help clear his name (Brodie is a former police officer who’s now trying to start a career in journalism). Brodie’s not sure what he can do, but he travels from London, where he’s been living, to Glasgow to see if he can help. That’s when he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She lost her court case, but is still convinced her client was framed, and is working to appeal his conviction. In this novel, she’s very much the underdog. For one thing, the prosecuting attorneys are skilled and experienced. Sam’s got the skills, but not a lot of experience. For another thing, she’s a woman in what is very much a man’s world (the novel takes place in 1947). What’s more, once she and Brodie find out who’s really responsible for Rory’s murder, they learn that they’re up against money and power. The underdog status adds tension to the plot as the two try to save Donovan.

And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived peacefully in his adopted Germany for decades. Then one day, he abruptly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he finds, shoots, and kills Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody, where he says almost nothing. German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney, but Collini doesn’t have one. So, Caspar Leinen, a newly-fledged lawyer who’s on stand-by duty for legal aid, takes the case. To Leinen’s frustration, Collini doesn’t try to defend himself. He admits to the shooting, but gives no motive. Leinen does his best, though, to prepare for the trial; and in this case, he’s the underdog. The prosecution has the confession, witness testimony, the weapon, and more. The only thing they don’t have is motive. Nor do they have any evidence that Collini is deranged or otherwise a threat. If he’s going to win his case, Leinen will have to go back to the past to find out the truth behind this murder.

There are plenty of other novels that feature underdogs. And that plot point can add a great deal to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Europe’s Spirit of the Underdog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gordon Ferris, Ian Hamilton, John D. MacDonald

Filling Out Forms, Standing in Line*

Just try getting a passport, a bank account, a lease, or a marriage license, and you’ll find out just how much paperwork there is in modern life. Admittedly, a lot of it’s online in modern times, but it’s still official ‘hoops.’ As ‘regular’ citizens, we may find that sort of ‘red tape’ annoying, but it can be very useful for police investigators who want to get background information on a person. Telephone records, for instance, can give the police valuable information on a victim (or suspect)’s communications network. Auto loan and registration information can tell police about someone’s financial situation, as well as link up an owner with, say, a car involved in a crime.

There are plenty of other examples, too. So, it’s no surprise at all that we see a lot of this sort of paperwork in crime fiction. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we are introduced to Rowley Cloade. He’s a farmer who’d doing his best to cope with the major changes in farming regulations that came about after the turn of the 20th Century. As the novel begins, he’s not exactly getting wealthy, but he’s always been told that he can count on his wealthy uncle, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. Then, unexpectedly, Gordon Cloade marries; soon afterwards, he dies in a bomb blast before he can change his will to protect his family. Now, the Cloades will have to find a way to manage without that security. Then, a stranger comes to town, who hints that Cloade’s widow was already married at the time of her wedding. If so, the Cloades get the fortune, so it’s of great interest to them. When that stranger is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. In one scene, Rowley goes to see his uncle Jeremy, ostensibly for help with some of the mountain of official forms he has to cope with as a farmer. That’s not really his purpose, but it’s the reason Jeremy isn’t in a very big hurry to finish his dinner and meet with his nephew. To Jeremy’s surprise, Rowley abruptly leaves. And, as it turns out, Rowley has found out something that plays an important role in the story.

Official paperwork is an important part of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be in the Hollywood Hills, when he decides to pay a visit to one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He’s hoping to get an agreement for a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking, and find themselves attracted to each other. Before long, they are involved in a relationship. Phyllis soon tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. In fact, she wants a policy double-indemnity set up so that she’ll inherit twice the value of her husband’s life insurance in case of an accident. That involves paperwork that she can’t do, but by this time, Huff is so besotted with her that he agrees to go along with her plan. In fact, he’s the one who draws up the new policy, and participates in Nirdlinger’s murder. Huff thinks this’ll be the worst thing he has to deal with, but, as it turns out, that’s only the beginning of his troubles…

Paperwork is also critical in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931 Berlin, just before the Nazi rise to power. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter who discovers by accident that her brother Ernst has been found dead. She wants very badly to find out how and why he died. She faces several challenges, though. One is the fact that, at the moment, she has no official identity documents. She and Ernst lent theirs to some Jewish friends so they could leave Germany, and those friends haven’t yet returned the papers (which they promised to do). So, she’ll have to stay out of the way of any official, and ask her questions very quietly and carefully.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Lora King, a Pasadena schoolteacher. When her brother, Bill, introduces her to his new girlfriend, Alice Steele, Lora’s not at all sure she likes this woman. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to be friendly with Alice. Despite Lora’s sense of unease, Bill and Alice marry, so now, there’s even more motivation to try to work things out with Alice. But soon, Lora begins to have doubts. For example, at one point, she agrees to help Alice get a teaching job at her school. Alice has said that she has a teaching certificate, but Lora can find no record of it. And, even in the 1950s, when this novel takes place, there was plenty of ‘red tape’ involved in getting a teaching license. This, plus other little hints, make Lora very uneasy. But, at the same time as she’s repelled by Alice’s life, she’s also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Now, Lora has to decide what she’ll do about her sister-in-law, who might very well be a killer.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee depends quite a lot on official paperwork. She’s a Toronto-based forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong company run by Chow Tung, a man Lee refers to as ‘Uncle.’ This company’s specialty is recovering money – sometimes a great deal of it – for people who are desperate to get that money back. Lee is in demand, because she is very good at what she does. In the process of looking for missing money, she often uses her knowledge of the sort of paperwork involved for loans, funds transfers, international transactions, and so on. Even the most accomplished thief still usually leaves a ‘paper trail.’

And that’s why that sort of bureaucracy is important, at least in crime fiction. You may grumble about all the ‘hoops’ involved in registering your home for sale, or in making a large purchase such as a car. But it all does matter. And it can all add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Allentown.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell

Renaissance Man*

renaissance-peopleThey’re sometimes called ‘Renaissance people,’ or polymaths. They’re experts in several, sometimes very different sorts of fields, and that can make them fascinating. In real life, people such as Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin have been called ‘Renaissance people.’ I’m sure you could think of others, too.

There are, arguably, also such people in crime fiction. The trick in creating them, of course, is to balance that variety of expertise areas with credibility. No-one can really do it all, or really knows it all. So, it can be a challenge to create such characters and make them appealing.
 

One such character is arguably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Not only is he an expert in chemistry, but he’s also well-skilled in other areas, too. Here, for instance, is a bit of Dr. Watson’s summation (from A Study in Scarlet):
 

‘7. Chemistry. — Profound. 8. Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic. 9. Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century. 10. Plays the violin well. 11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman. 12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.’
 

That’s a wide variety of skills, and fans of these stories will know that Holmes uses those skills at different times. What’s interesting, though, is that there are some areas in which he has very little knowledge. He knows nothing of literature or philosophy, and little of politics. In fact, Holmes himself says that he devotes his attention only to knowledge that’ll help him in his profession. It’s an interesting mix of skills and lack of knowledge.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey can tell you that he has a wide and quite varied set of skills. Along with his ability to deduct and solve mysteries, he’s got many rare books, and is somewhat of an expert in that field. He also knows his way around wine. And that’s not to mention his skills as a change ringer (right, fans of The Nine Tailors?). Those who’ve read Murder Must Advertise can also vouch for his skills on the cricket field. In fact, some readers have found Wimsey tiresome, in part because he’s good at so very much. Whether you’re in that group or not, there’s no doubt that Wimsey has a lot of expertise in different areas.

So does Rex Stout’s Nero Wole.  He is, as fans know, a brilliant detective. His skills at deduction are impressive. But any fan of Wolfe knows that he is also thoroughly knowledgeable about orchids of all kinds. He can discuss the most minute detail of orchid raising with the best-informed experts. And, although, orchids are his particular passion, he also knows other things about gardening. And I couldn’t discuss Nero Wolfe without mentioning his thorough knowledge of gourmet food. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on food, and several of the Wolfe mysteries feature his adventures among the gourmet greats (e.g. Too Many Cooks). What’s interesting about Wolfe, though, is that there are also things he’s not mastered quite so well. As Archie Goodwin is happy to point out, Wolfe has his limitations. He may be a ‘Renaissance person,’ but that certainly doesn’t make him perfect.

You could also argue that Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a “Renaissance person.’ She is a forensic accountant who, as the series begins, works for a Hong-Kong based company run by Chow Tung, whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ The company works on behalf of people who’ve been bilked out of money (sometimes a great deal of it), and are desperate to get that money back. Lee’s job is to track the missing money down. And that means she has to be able to follow a financial trail. So, as you can imagine, she’s an expert in accountancy. Lee is also (again, not surprisingly) an expert on computers and cyber-activity. Along with that, Lee is an expert in martial arts. That’s probably not a bad thing, considering the danger she often encounters in the course of her work. Whether she’s too ‘over the top’ will likely depend on the reader’s point of view and taste. But she’s certainly skilled in a lot of areas.

And then there’s Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Reema Ray. She’s a PI who, as the series starts, has her own business in Calcutta/Kolkata. She’s studied several aspects of criminology; in fact, she almost became a police officer. But she has other skill sets, too.  Her small business isn’t immediately successful, so she has to also consider other ways of making ends meet. She is, therefore, a journalist – a writer for a lifestyle magazine called Face. Another area in which Reema has some expertise is in gourmet food. She’s not only an enthusiastic cook (mostly baking) herself, but she also is quite familiar with different sorts of cooking styles, spices and so on. Part of that expertise comes from her own interest; part comes from what she learns through her lifestyle writing and reporting. This doesn’t mean she’s all-knowing or perfect, though. She has her share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities as we all do.

And that’s the challenge with ‘Renaissance’ characters. It can be tricky for an author to endow them with several areas of expertise, and still keep them credible. No-one’s perfect, and that includes people who have a wide variety of skills. And when characters are too expert to be credible, this can quickly get tiresome. Still, a ‘Renaissance’ character can be interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Midnight Oil.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Hamilton, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Rex Stout

YYZ*

TorontoToronto is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. It’s one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and it’s got a rich history. There’s politics (it’s a provincial capital), art, fine food, great music and sport. And murder. That’s right, murder. Don’t let Toronto’s peaceful and lovely surface fool you; plenty of crime fiction happens there. Little wonder the Arthur Ellis awards for this year – Canada’s highest award for crime writing – were given out in Toronto. Here are just a few examples of Toronto-based crime fiction. There are others that space prevents me from mentioning.

One of Eric Wright’s series features Inspector Charlie Salter of the Toronto Metropolitan Police. For political reasons, he got ‘sidelined’ and shunted to what amounts to desk duty. He begins to win back some notice in his first outing, The Night the Gods Smiled. In Smoke Detector, the second novel in this series, he investigates the murder of Cyril ‘Cy’ Drecker, who owned an antique/junk shop. Drecker’s body is found in the burned-out remains of the shop, and it’s soon revealed that he died of smoke inhalation. This is clearly a case of arson and murder, so Salter’s challenge is to sift through the victim’s past to find out who is responsible. It won’t be easy, either, as Drecker was an unfaithful husband and a somewhat unscrupulous businessman. Along with the mysteries in this series, it also features story arcs that focus on Salter’s family. He’s one of those detectives who actually has a bond with his wife and children…

John McFetridge has also set his work in Toronto. For example, Dirty Sweet is the story of down-on-her-luck real estate agent Roxanne Keyes. One afternoon, she witnesses a man get out of the passenger side of a Volvo, walk back to an SUV behind him, and shoot the driver. She tells her story to the investigating detectives and it’s accurate as far as it goes. But that’s not very far. She hasn’t told the police that the murderer looks familiar. Later, she remembers who the killer is: He’s a former prospective client, Boris Suliemanov, who’s with the Russian Mob. She figures that if she deals with Suliemanov rather than turning him in to the police, she can set herself up to benefit. But of course, when you deal with dangerous people, you get into trouble…

Robert Rotenberg’s series featuring police detective Ari Greene also takes place mostly in Toronto. In some senses, this is a police procedural series since Greene is with the Toronto Police, and he and his team do the investigating in these novels. But Rotenberg is a criminal lawyer, and these books are as much legal mysteries as they are anything else. Each one involves an important trial, and we follow several attorneys for both sides as these cases are prepared and play out in court. Rotenberg also depicts the cultural complexity of Toronto, too. As we get to know the characters in this series, we see that they’re from a wide variety of ethnic, geographic and cultural backgrounds. They’re all in the city for different reasons, too, and Rotenberg tells their stories without too much of a self-conscious focus on their diversity. It’s simply part of what this city is.

One of the important communities in Toronto is the Chinese and Chinese-Canadian community. Readers get a look at this community in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee novels. Lee’s mother moved her children from China to Canada when Lee was very small, so Lee considers herself Canadian. Yet, she maintains several aspects of her Chinese identity as well. She is a forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong-based firm headed by Chow Tung, whom Lee refers to as Uncle. Her specialty is tracing hidden money, and her services are highly valued by clients who’ve been bilked out of money and are desperate to get it back. Lee travels quite a lot, since those who are trying to hide money tend to use offshore banks and other companies. But her home is Toronto.

There are also Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson novels. Jackson is a former rock singer who’s become a private investigator. Her cases have shown her (and the reader) several different sides of Toronto, including various facets of the sex and porn industries; banking; music; and of course, good restaurants. Sometimes Jackson’s personal life gets a little complicated. But she can always count on her best friend Lindsey, her brother Shane (it helps that he and Lindsey are engaged), and her father. Thus far, there are four novels in this series: Blood and Groom, Dead Light District, The Lies Have It, and Frisky Business.

And no mention of Toronto crime fiction would be complete without a mention of the CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, starring Yannick Bisson as Detective William Murdoch. The series takes place mostly in Toronto, at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. There’s a strong sense of the late Victorian/Edwardian era, and some of the main movements and events of that time find their ways into the plots.

As you see, Toronto is a city with a beautiful setting, fascinating history, rich culture, and great food. It has sport, intellectual life, interesting politics, and plenty to do. But peaceful? Not so much…

Stay dry, Torontonians!

 
 

In Memoriam…

Eric Wright

This post is dedicated to the memory of Eric Wright, one of the founding members of the Crime Writers of Canada, who died earlier this month. His work was prolific and influential, and he will be much missed.

 

ps  As you may know, I usually take my own ‘photos. But this one’s better than any one I could take. Thanks, City of Toronto.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rush. What’s YYZ? It’s the airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport

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Filed under Eric Wright, Ian Hamilton, Jill Edmondson, John McFetridge, Robert Rotenberg