I often joke that everything I know, I learned from mysteries.
Well, that’s partly true.
A lot of things I learn start in a mystery book, thanks to detailed research that really good authors conduct.
Yes, it’s fiction and that means the author made it up. But that’s the plot, character, dialogue. Most authors are meticulous about making sure certain elements of a novel are based in reality.
I was always good in history and it was one of my favorite subjects. But history—at least the way most students learn it—is just a bunch of numbers. What brings history to life are the people behind those numbers.
Take Brad Meltzer. When you read about something in a Meltzer novel, you can pretty much take it to the bank that he is writing about something that is real. With no embellishments. He saves those embellishments for his plots and characters.
We should expect no less than the truth from the author who is the host of Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, on H2, and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, on the History Channel.
Meltzer also is also responsible for helping find the missing 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero, making national news on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
And through the years, Meltzer has had unbelievable access to archives and several US presidents. I think that’s because Meltzer writes from the heart and respects history.
Meltzer’s latest novel, The Escape Artist, is chock with historical facts, and, yes, some seem hard to believe, but they are true. Such as:
In 1898, John Elbert Wilkie, appointed to be head of the US Secret Service, was a friend of magician Harry Houdini. Wilkie borrowed some of Houdini’s techniques to enhance the department’s surveillance techniques.
Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is where bodies of fallen soldiers, covert CIA operatives, and others who give their lives overseas on behalf of the United States are prepared for burial. The morticians here go to great lengths to prepare these heroes for burial and so families can, if ever possible, have an open casket.
But for me, the most astonishing fact—and most interesting—was the position of the Army’s artist-in-residence. Since World War I, the US Army has had an actual painter on staff who documents disasters. This person often sees, through the prism of being an artist, what others cannot. Even photographers haven’t captured aspects that the artist-in-residence has.
In the press materials for The Escape Artist, Meltzer states that these “war artists are one of our military’s greatest traditions and they have catalogued everything from the dead on D-Day, the injured at Mogadishu, and the sandbag pilers after Hurricane Katrina.”
He added, “After 9/11, they were the only artist allowed inside the security perimeter.”
During the recent Literary Feast panel of which I was the moderator, Meltzer was again telling this story, still amazed that while everyone else runs into battle, this artist only has paintbrushes.
“I said, ‘That’s the craziest person I’ve ever heard. I wanna meet him.’ And my male bias got the best of me because they quickly said to me, “You mean her. You want to meet her.” And I was like, “Yes, I want to meet her’,” Meltzer said during our panel, which was sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation.
And in The Escape Artist, readers do indeed meet her.
Photo of Brad Meltzer by Michelle Watson.
Many terrific crime fiction writers are based in Canada.
And each time I read the list of authors being honored at the Arthur Ellis Awards, I realize how little I know about Canadian authors.
Here is the list of the winners of the 2018 Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, announced by the Crime Writers of Canada.
This list should inspire book sales among readers. Crime Writers of Canada was founded in 1982 as a professional organization designed to raise the profile of Canadian crime writers. The members include authors, publishers, editors, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and literary agents, as well as many developing authors.
(The descriptions are courtesy of the Crime Writers of Canada; publishers listed are who published the novels in Canada. One of the winners is for best novel in French and the description is in French. We don’t speak French but many of our readers do.)
Sleeping in the Ground, by Peter Robinson (McClelland & Stewart):
What the judges said: “From the first few words in the beginning chapter the impact of Sleeping in the Ground was visceral—it packs a heck of a punch. Peter Robinson paints a stunning portrait of a horrific murder scene that makes you feel as shocked and horrified as if you were standing right there. Then you are plunged into a frolic to figure out the who and why. There are so many twists and turns that it is hard to catch your breath. You find yourself swept along by the great mystery of the murders as well as the intricacies of the inter-relationships of Banks and his fellow homicide detectives, and the suspects as well.”
Best First Novel
Full Curl, by Dave Butler (Dundurn Press):
What the judges said: “Dave Butler brings to life the most compelling and complicated protagonist that Canadian crime fiction has seen in a long time. Jenny Willson is one tough cookie whose hard-edged nature and sharp mind make her the perfect candidate to solve this very out-of-the ordinary mystery. With a realistic time-line, multiple murders, and intricate attention to detail, Butler keeps his readers guessing from beginning to end. Truly Canadian in every essence, the scenery practically leaps off the page, making it both a love letter to the Canadian wilderness and a compelling and fast-paced mystery.”
Best Novella: The Lou Allin Memorial Award
How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered in an Open Field with No Footprints Around, by Mike Culpepper, published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (Dell):
What the judges said: “Elegant. If there was a word out of place none of us noticed. This story and these characters transported us in time and space and by the end left us in tears.”
Best Short Story
The Outlier, by Catherine Astolfo, published in 13 Claws (Carrick Publishing):
What the judges said: “The Outlier grabs the reader's attention from the first sentence. There was good foreshadowing and tension, with a solid ending and good believability. Prose was well done (showed rather than told) and the dialogue moved the plot along well. The protagonist was interesting and original, as was the diabolical plot. An unexpected twist ending reveals a criminal familiar to many of us, and this time he’s getting away with murder.”
Best Book in French
Les tricoteuses, by Marie Saur (Héliotrope Noir):
What the judges said: “Avec Les tricoteuses, Marie Saur nous plonge dans une intrigue prenante et originale tout en nous amenant dans un pan d’histoire moins connu du militantisme féministe au Québec: les grèves déclenchées par les ouvrières dans les usines textiles pour améliorer leur condition de travail. Sans jamais tomber dans les pièges du genre et les stéréotypes, elle nous offre une galerie de personnages pittoresque et un texte d’une grande qualité littéraire, en particulier dans ses dialogues. Le récit policier intéresse, et Marie Saur l’ouvre au roman social en dénonçant les puissants, assurés de leur bon droit. Elle y écorche au passage le milieu des médias prêt à tout pour attirer l’audience. Le tout avec une sensibilité, une subtilité et une teinte d’humour noir qui font de Ses tricoteuses un polar incontournable.”
Best Juvenile/YA Book
Chase - Get Ready to Run, by Linwood Barclay (Penguin Random House Puffin Canada):
What the judges said: “The plot is inventive and captivating from the opening chapter where the reader is taken into the mind of a dog as Chipper, the Border Collie, escapes from a top secret, scientific facility. This is a highly imaginative but believable story exploring the potential of cyber crime using a dog to mask the nefarious goals of his handlers. The book has strong boy and girl characters with the girl, atypically, being the computer expert and the boy expressing well the emotions and difficulties of being an orphan. It quietly introduces an emerging boy girl relationship suitable for the juvenile age group. The author employs age appropriate language and uses humour to temper the more frightening aspects of the story. “
Best Nonfiction Book
The Whisky King, by Trevor Cole (HarperCollins):
What the judges said: “The Whisky King uses the lives of two protagonists to tell the history of prohibition and liquor smuggling in Canada. It combines the stories of a charming rum runner who became king of the bootleggers and the perennially underpaid Mountie who helped to shut him down. It captures the atmosphere of the 1920s and 30s in Hamilton and Toronto, a time when law enforcement didn't have the tools available today to bring about convictions and when the criminals told bold lies in court to enable them to, quite literally, get away with murder. The story-telling draws the reader in like a good novel. The book exhibits a high degree of professionalism in its research, writing, editing and presentation.”
Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel
Destruction in Paradise, by Dianne Scott
What the judges said: “A unanimous choice, the judges were intrigued by the location of the book in both time and space. The choice of Toronto Island offers a relatively closed community providing a framework to contain the action. And the Island, along with its myriad engaging inhabitants, is well enough described to become a character in its own right. The choice of the 1960s as the timeframe furnishes an opportunity to set the book in an external milieu of social issues which integrate well with the main plot. The judges were impressed with the protagonist, finding her well-rounded with her own character arc and with an interesting subplot of her unusual family life. While not unduly complex, the plot hangs together well, with the ending growing organically out of what had gone before.”
Crime Writers of Canada Grand Master Award
Gail Bowen is being recognized by Crime Writers of Canada for her long and illustrious career as a crime fiction author. She has almost 20 books in her long running Joanne Kilbourn series, several of which were either nominated for or received awards, including the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel in 1994, for A Colder Kind of Death. She has also written four Rapid Reads novellas and several plays. She is well established in Canada, highly respected in the writing community and much sought after by readers. She is frequently a guest at literary events. Several of her Joanne Kilbourn books were turned into a TV series.