Tomorrow evening there will be an online announcement by the Crime Writers of Canada of the winners of the 2020 Arthur Ellis Awards for Canadian Crime Writing. Just over a week ago I received in the mail the 5 books forming the shortlist for the Best Novel Award. I had ordered them from the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto.
I started with Fate by Ian Hamilton because he is the only author from the finalists I have read previously. I have enjoyed his series of thrillers featuring the dynamic forensic accountant, Ava Lee. Fate is the first in a trilogy on the origins of “Uncle” Chow Tung who was Ava’s mentor in the early books of the series. I was immediately caught up in Uncle’s escape from mainland China to Hong Kong in 1959 and his rise as a Fanling triad a decade later. I swept through the 295 pages in two days.
At that point knowing I could not read the other 4 books before the Awards announcement I could not determine which book I would read next. After some reflection I decided to read from each of them simultaneously to get a sense of all the shortlisted books before the announcement of the winner. I would read about 25 pages, make some notes and then move on to the next book. Using that approach I have read 50 - 100 pages in each of the remaining 4 shortlisted books.
I would not pick which I consider the best without reading more for I have enough first impressions that were changed for the better or worse by superior or disappointing endings.
I found I did read enough to know which book I wanted to keep reading rather than move on to one of the other books. Thus I will rank the shortlist by “Hardest to Put Down”:
1.) Fate - Even had I not read the full book I know I would have found it very hard not to keep reading the book. Hamilton is very skilled at drawing the reader through the narrative. I also believe I was driven as I wanted to know about “Uncle”. He had been such an intriguing and important character in the Ava Lee series.
2.) Greenwood by Michael Christie - In 2038 seekers of the experience of trees come to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral on an island off the coast of British Columbia. A “Great Withering” has killed most of the world’s trees. Great dust storms have caused economic havoc and rib retch, a virulent new strain of tuberculosis, is killing untold numbers of children. The seekers, known as “Pilgrims”, are wealthy world citizens who have isolated themselves from the wretched masses of poor people. Canada known as water rich and tree rich is a refuge for the wealthy.
Forest Guide, Jake Greenwood, has a Ph.D in dendrology (botany specializing in trees). She takes the Pilgrims around the island.
Jake has just seen on a pair of ancient firs some patches of browned needles and an area of spongy bark. Has the Withering come to the island?
And then the story turns to the lives of her father, Liam, and her mother, Willow. Jake had never known their stories. More important she was unaware her great-grandfather had owned the island.
I rarely venture into the future, especially the future of great disasters, but the unsettling, compelling opening of Greenwood drew me into the book. And, as we are living amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels uncomfortably real. I need to know what is going to happen in Greenwood.
3.) In the Dark by Loreth Anne White - Big city homicide detective, RCMP Sgt. Mason Deniaud, is now in charge of the 3 officer detachment at Kluhane Bay in remote northern British Columbia.
As the book opens in early November he is interviewing the survivor of a bush disaster. The name and gender of the survivor is not revealed. Two weeks earlier 9 people took a floatplane from the dock of the Thunderbird Lodge.
The story shifts to the discovery of a crashed floatplane a few days earlier. At the scene Deniaud, who has hid his fear of heights, trying to see the plane, has a branch break and tumbles down to a ledge where the plane is precariously perched. Just as the plane slips into the river he is grabbed by Callie Sutton, head of the Kluhane Lake Search and Rescue. Uncomfortable with heights myself it was a heart pounding scene.
The story shifts earlier yet in October. Executives and an aging private investigator gather to fly to a new exclusive lodge. They have been invited to experience the lodge and discuss potential business contracts for the services needed by the lodge. They find the Forest Shadow Wilderness Resort & Spa is not a luxurious resort. It is a huge empty house.
Each member of the nine thinks they recognize at least one other person. Cryptic thoughts of dark secrets occupy their minds.
Unease edges towards panic when they realize they were duped into coming and then learn the plane’s radio has been sabotaged and bad weather may keep them in the wilderness for a week or more unable to communicate with the rest of the world.
When they find a copy of Agatha Christie’s book, Ten Little Indians, on the coffee table in which there is a paper with a poem about “Nine Little Liars” who die one by one until there is but one I could barely put down the book.
4.) The Last Resort by Marissa Stapley - Pain. Acute and chronic. The lacerating pain of failing relationships. Grace and Miles Markell are specialists in such pain, At their beautiful resort on the Mayan Riviera of Mexico they host two week retreats for well-to-do couples on the abyss of separation. Yet they are living a failing personal relationship.
Shell and Colin are a mature Canadian couple with perfect hair. They are abruptly defined as the alcoholic and the workaholic.
Ben and Johana have come from California. He is a busy district attorney. She is a social worker who has not left their home for weeks.
All the couples are bitter. There is clearly an abundance of motive for violence.
Since I deal with family law every day at the office the stories and emotions are very familiar.
I am interested to know what develops but did not find it hard to put the book down.
5.) Hideaway by Nicole Lundrigan - A creepy chilling opening left me dreading what would happen next. Gloria “Glow” Janes is a nightmare mother. After he steals some chocolate Gloria takes her son, Rowan “Row”, into the woods and leaves him standing over night under a sign marked “Theif”. When her daughter, Maisy “Turtle”, a flower in a school play freezes on stage she ignores Maisie when they get home. Maisy thinks:
That is how I knew she disappeared me. She did that sometimes. Mostly, it was Rowan, but tonight it was me. She couldn’t see me no more. Gloria’s heart was all locked up because only one of us was allowed in at a time.
Their father, Telly, has left Gloria. She desperately wants him back. He is not returning. He has no time for the children. He is focused on a new relationship with Dian.
Rowan returns to the woods during the summer to seek out Carl, a homeless man, who gave him shelter that long lonely night in the woods. Carl lives under a bridge.
I am over 50 pages in and interested, but not eager, to find out what happens in this frightening family. I did not find it hard to put down the book.
I am excited to find out which book is announced the winner tomorrow. I shall be doing full reviews on the quintet in the near future.