Thursday, 3 August 2017

From Holmes to Sherlock: A Book Review

As faithful readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I've been busier than a cat at a dog show these days, and the posts have been few and far between.

One of the areas in which I'm staying active, though, is in following up on my duties as mystery & thriller book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books.

As I evolve as a reviewer of other people's work, I find I'm less hesitant to speak up when I don't think a book is very good. In this way, I suppose, a reviewer evolves into a book critic.

Book critics, though, also have an obligation to inform readers about books they judge to be a success. Authors who hit the nail on the head should be celebrated in book reviews for their good work, shouldn't they?

Such an author is Mattias Bostrom, a Swedish writer and veteran Sherlockian who has just published a remarkable work: From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon. As someone with only a passing interest in things Sherlock I selected this book to review with mild enthusiasm at best. I ended up reading it from cover to cover and enjoying it immensely.

What was so darned good about it? Check out my review to find out!

Monday, 10 July 2017


Sony Music recently announced it will begin to make vinyl records again in Japan for the first time in three decades, following up the release of a new turntable last year.

As someone who has collected vinyl record albums for nearly five decades, I find the move interesting. I was a little surprised to learn that the market is returning to vinyl in a big way. The Guardian recently reported that sales of vinyl in the U.K. suddenly exceeded sales of digital downloads. Vinyl sales have shown eight consecutive years of growth. These numbers explain, then, Sony's interest in investing in the future (!) of vinyl.

Experts commenting on the trend point to a desire by consumers to be able to purchase something physical to own. Music lovers are drawn by the cover art, lyrics, and liner notes which "give them a more tangible sense of connection to the music they love."

Cover art often drew me to new music. As a teenager I discovered Wishbone Ash by purchasing There's The Rub when it came out because I thought the cover was quirky and cool. The music was solid, and I went back for more. When I spotted Argus, that was it. Now there's a cool cover.

Long-play albums often offer other attractions. I recently picked up John Prine's first album, pictured above, for a buck at a community yard sale in Kemptville. On the back cover Prine had inscribed it in ballpoint pen to "Ric and Bonnie from a Grateful Guest 20/8/74." He drew a peace flower and signed it. Now who wouldn't like to have something like that in their collection?

The best part of the whole thing, though, is the fact that Sony Music is reaching out for expertise to achieve the best possible sound for their new pressings. What does that mean? "Cutting is a delicate process, with the quality of sound affected by the depth and angle of the grooves ... and Sony is scrambling to bring in old record engineers to pass on their knowledge."

There must be a feeling of quiet triumph in the minds of the old guys who suddenly find themselves wanted again. Their sound engineering skills are once again a valuable commodity. Who woulda thunk it?

Rock on, Old Dudes! Show the people how it's done!!

It's enough to blow your mind, man.

Saturday, 1 July 2017


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the confederation of British colonies in North America into the Dominion of Canada. Over the past century and a half we've built this country into the proud, self-reliant nation it is today, and we're very grateful to live within its borders as citizens of one of the most progressive, free, and safe countries in the world.

Unlike patriots in some other countries who like to bray about how wonderful and powerful their nation is compared to others (ahem), we Canadians prefer to maintain a low profile and tout the accomplishments of our nation a little more quietly and politely. However, today being the day it is, this particular Canadian citizen would like to speak a few words explaining to readers of this blog who live in other places such as the Netherlands, Taiwan, the UK, Ireland, and yes--the United States of America--why we're so proud today. We Canadians know who we are and what we're about, but you other folks may be a little fuzzy on the details. Allow me to mount the bully pulpit for a minute and deliver a few words of enlightenment.

Unavoidably, I have to start with health care. While Americans on the political right love to take potshots at our publicly-funded, single payer, national health care system, its inadequacies are the rare exception rather than the rule. Consider this: 99% of all physician services and 90% of hospital care are paid for by the state, and it's been that was since 1966 without Canada falling into complete and total chaos as a result, thank you very much. It works, people. For everyone--rich or poor, male or female, and no matter what race, religion, or whatever the heck else. Period. End of story. Get over it.

Immigrants are welcome in my country. Why? Because we believe very strongly in the concept of a cultural mosaic, a multiculturalism where different peoples from all over the world bring new, exciting, and innovative ideas into our social fabric. We like things that are different and new to us. We're not afraid of them. We embrace diversity with open arms. New music, new food, new languages, new clothing/fabric/fashion ideas, new fiction and film, new perspectives on the meaning of life. My Irish ancestors were immigrants. I like to think their descendants have contributed something to this country in the century and a half since. Let's continue that tradition with smiling faces and open hearts, shall we?

To take this point a step further, Canada is an ideal destination right now for innovators, scientists, engineers, and others to come to Canada to continue their careers. It's a perfect opportunity for Canada to benefit from a brain drain of the best and brightest flowing into our country for once, instead of out. As this trend progresses, perhaps venture capitalists and other start-up investors here will take the opportunity to provide seed money to help a new wave of innovation bear fruit, for example in the alternative energy industry. What a great opportunity for us to grow and show the way into the future!

As welcoming as we are to people seeking a new home in our country, we're still vigilant in keeping our borders, our highways, and our cities safe and secure. Make no mistake, the women and men who maintain our border services and provide our federal, provincial and municipal policing are the best in the world at what they do. Period. End of story. Get over it.

I won't talk about hockey, because the entire world knows we're the best, and there's no point rubbing it in. 

I could go on forever, but I have a suggestion instead. Come to Canada. Check us out. See what we're talking about, why we're making such a fuss here today about what we've got and why we love it so much. Seeing is believing, folks.

Happy Canada Day!

Monday, 26 June 2017


This past Saturday I signed books at the Westport Heritage Festival in Westport, Ontario. We had great weather, and while the turnout to Lockwood Park was a little lighter, perhaps, than in past years when the festival was held on Bedford Street downtown, I still had a great time talking to people and selling books.

Westport is a community of about 600 people on the Rideau Waterway, an extensive canal system that connects Ottawa, our nation's capital, with Kingston, on the shore of Lake Ontario. Its population more or less triples in summer because it is an enormously popular spot for tourists and boaters, particularly Americans who travel the canal or own cottages in the area.

Westport is always very kind to me when I go there, in part because the community is extremely supportive of the arts. My secret weapon, however, is my name. When people walk by my table and see McCANN on my banners and book covers, their feet slow, they edge over, and after a moment or two make eye contact and say, "Are you related to the McCanns who were up on the mountain?"

In my spare time (!) I'm an amateur genealogist of sorts. Over the years I've researched my family history and the histories of other related families, and it's something I love to talk about. My great-great-great grandparents Arthur McCann and Ann Quinn emigrated from Forkhill Parish, County Armagh, Ireland and settled in North Crosby township, which included the village of Westport. They first appear in local records in 1842. My great-great grandfather, Michael J. McCann, was a successful shoemaker and merchant in the village from the 1850s until his death in 1910. My father was born in Westport and lived there until he was 12, when the family moved to Kingston looking for work.

So while I'm not directly related to the "Foley Mountain" McCanns, who were from a different townland in Forkhill Parish, I answer the above question by launching into the above thumbnail sketch of my ancestry, and away we go. The conversation can go on for quite a while as we trade names, ponder possible relationships, and laugh about the fact that at one time you couldn't swing a dead rat in Westport without hitting a McCann!

While I've never lived there myself, my heritage makes me an accepted son of the community, and I couldn't be happier.

Selling books, on a day like this, is an added bonus!

Monday, 19 June 2017


In a recent post, I examined the police procedural sub-genre in terms of its characters and approach to characterization. As a noted authority on the subject explained, "To be a police procedural, a novel must have a set of police characters and--preferably detailed--descriptions of their work as they investigate one or more crimes."

When police characters are added to family members, witnesses and/or suspects, non-police characters involved in the investigation (coroner, forensic pathologist, etc.), and others, the list of characters appearing in a police procedural will be somewhat longer than, say, a private eye novel or a cozy mystery featuring an amateur sleuth in a small town.

Are there too many characters in BURN COUNTRY? To answer this question, it's important to compare its character list to other procedurals, so that apples are being firmly compared to other apples.

To do so, I chose one of Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks novels, AFTERMATH (2002), pulling it off the shelf more or less at random. I charted the characters in this novel using the following criterion: I only counted characters who are named by the narrator and have a speaking part in the story. I excluded unnamed characters who speak, including several SOCOs who interact with Banks or Annie for at least a page, and I excluded characters who are named but do not actually appear in the story. Fair enough? I then charted BURN COUNTRY and compiled a comparable list.

The results? There are 53 characters in AFTERMATH, 18 of which are police characters. On the other hand, there are 48 characters in BURN COUNTRY, 16 of which are police characters.

Are there too many characters in AFTERMATH? This novel has 7442 ratings in Goodreads, 40 of which are 1-star ratings. None of the 1-star reviews mention the number of characters. (Interestingly, fellow crime fiction author Val McDermid gave it 1 star!) Additionally, there are 113 2-star ratings, and none of these reviews mention too many characters. In fact, several have solid praise for Robinson's characterization. There are 837 3-star ratings, and I could only spot one review that complained about the number of characters. Et cetera, et cetera.

The point? Readers who enjoy police procedurals understand that novels in the sub-genre contain more characters than novels in other mystery sub-genres, but they appreciate them for the richness they bring to the story!

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


You're never too old to learn something new about yourself.

As you may have heard, I was recently hit by the Type 2 diabetes express train, and I'm now staggering off the tracks trying to make my way back to Normalville. The symptoms have been very severe, including blurred vision, zero energy, lack of concentration, and poor memory recall. I'm now taking the appropriate medication, figuring out how to pay better attention to my diet, and aware that once the needle on my energy level comes back up out of the red I should get more exercise.

While this has been going on, as you can imagine, I haven't been able to write. I'd collapse in the chair, turn on the computer, open the files, and stare at them. Then wander off to find something else to do. Watching TV has been a favourite. You don't have to move while you're doing it.

Of course, being an analytical type, I've been trying to figure out why I couldn't even write a page or two. Even when I wanted to, I couldn't do it. I know where I am right now in the manuscript, I know what comes next, and I know what themes I'm currently working, but I couldn't put one sentence after another. Mulling it over, I eventually realized why.

When I write, I need to hold the whole story in my head while I'm working. I need instant recall of what I've written so far, and what the rest of the outline is calling for, so that in the current chapter I don't repeat myself or introduce something out of order. I even need to be able to remember what I've written in the previous novels, so I'm aware I haven't touched on such-and-such in this story yet.

It's like loading an entire computer program into RAM before calling up a file to work on. And right now, the program won't load. I can't hold the whole thing in my head.

It's something you're not really aware that you're doing, until you can't. I've taken it for granted, I guess, that I rely so heavily on my memory while I'm working, but I definitely won't take it for granted going forward. Just as I won't take my health for granted from now on.

As I say, you learn something new about yourself every day.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Police Procedural and Its Cast of Characters

The March and Walker Crime Novel series, which currently includes Hammett Prize nominee SORROW LAKE and its recently-published sequel BURN COUNTRY, falls into the "police procedural" category.  To enhance the experience of readers as they explore the series, it might help to consider the basic characteristics of police procedurals in general with particular emphasis on their cast of characters.

As crime fiction scholar Kerstin Bergman explains in an essay on Swedish procedurals,
To be a police procedural, a novel must have a set of police characters and--preferably detailed--descriptions of their work as they investigate one or more crimes.... Police procedurals generally display a police 'team of individuals, separated by age, experience, gender, race and ethnicity, [who] work collectively to restore and maintain social order.' *
Unlike other types of mystery such as the private detective novel or the cozy mystery, which tend to feature a single protagonist solving the crime with the help of one or two assistants, procedurals reflect the reality of actual police investigation in which a team of professionals, including homicide detectives, supervisory and management personnel, forensic specialists, and forensic pathologists or coroners come together to play their respective roles in the investigation of the case.  In order to maintain a level of verisimilitude that readers of procedurals demand, the author must depict these various team members to some degree or other as the case unfolds.

As The Guide to United States Popular Culture further tells us,
The method for solving crimes also helps define the police procedural. The investigative process involves a set of established professional procedures for collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, examining crime scenes, and conducting forensic inquiries.... The group dynamics are often highlighted, re-creating in fiction the friendships and hostilities that exist among any group of people that work together.**
With these critical explanations of the sub-genre in mind, readers may better understand that they will encounter a roster of characters in the March and Walker series, rather than two protagonists working in relative isolation to close the case in super-hero fashion, and that the respective roles and various relationships of the characters will be clearly explained in the story. 

As an Amazon Vine Voice reviewer stated about BURN COUNTRY, "Kevin Walker and Ellie March each go their own way in this case, as part of a larger investigative team. The interplay between the various characters feels genuine, with dialogue and exchanges that give us a good sense of each of them as well as their relationships with each other."

So whether it's Swedish police procedurals, American Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct, or the March and Walker Crime Novel series, readers who favour this sub-genre of mystery stories understand that a realistic cast of characters is all part of the police procedural experience.

*Kerstin Bergman, "The Well-Adjusted Cops of the New Millennium: Neo-Romantic Tendencies in the Swedish Police Procedural," Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, eds. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011, pp. 34-45.
**"Police Procedural." The Guide to United States Popular Culture, Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne, eds. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2001, pp. 617-18.