West End Murders
Seaweed on the Rocks
Seaweed in the Soup
November 4, 2013
Review By Chad Reimer
Murder mysteries – books, TV shows, movies – have always been a not-so-guilty pleasure of mine. I remember my early days as a novel reader, inhabiting the English country society of Agatha Christie. Today, pretty much the only reading I do for pleasure is focused on mysteries. I’ve even tried my hand at writing bits and pieces, awkward chapter drafts that sit collecting electronic dust on my hard drive. It was, then, somewhat daunting to be faced with the task of reviewing the works of writers who actually know what they’re doing. The only approach I knew how to take was a subjective one – to say how the three books reviewed here struck me.
So, in a wholly subjective and arbitrary manner, I’ll start with the book I enjoyed the most. Stanley Evans’s Seaweed on the Rocks opens with an act of reckless, and selfless, humanity. Silas Seaweed – Victoria Police detective, member of the Warrior Reserve – is called to an abandoned house, where he finds a Native woman clinging to life. The woman is an old friend of Seaweed’s, from his own people, and he knows of her crack addiction and work as a prostitute. He starts mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on her while waiting for the ambulance, heedless of the open sores in her mouth. After a lecture on his own stupidity from the paramedic, Seaweed drags himself to a local clinic for an HIV and Hep C test.
This was my introduction to Evans’s Seaweed: engaging and sympathetic, a character who never surrenders to the detached cynicism that is an occupational hazard. Nor does he see himself as some kind of heroic saviour. He is a Native Everyman – navigating the gritty streets of Victoria, attuned to the suffering around him, and connected to the Coast Salish traditions that root him in place.
Overall, the plotting, characters, and resolution of Seaweed on the Rocks is unforced, flowing naturally. By comparison, Evans’s sequel, Seaweed in the Soup, was something of a letdown. Seaweed is less engaging in this book. He and the other characters seem oddly detached from the events they witness. Even the half a dozen or so murders – horrific, grisly killings – don’t touch the detective, or the reader. Also, shifts in the plot are jarring at times, the dialogue more awkward than in Seaweed on the Rocks. I still enjoyed my time with Seaweed, but I hankered for his earlier incarnation.
Turning to Roy Innes’s West End Murders, the reader moves from the dankness of Victoria’s underworld to the rarefied air of Vancouver’s West End. Greasy bacon and eggs, black coffee, and mouldy lasagne is replaced by croissants, cappuccinos, fine dining, and tome-like wine lists. This is the world of Vancouver City Police detective Mark Coswell, who, with rcmp corporal Paul Blake, works to unravel an intricate plot that involves a secretive group of homophobic murderers.
What makes West End Murders stand out from other mystery novels is the quality of Innes’s writing. In most mysteries, the writing is functional, in service of the plot. But Innes’s prose is a step above. His characters and scenes come to life and stick in the reader’s mind. His plotting is tight and largely uncontrived. If there is one major fault, it is that Innes’s description of Vancouver’s West End – and particularly its gay community – is too precious. These gays are to a fault witty, educated, successful, and so darn nice. There has to be a jerk or two among them: it’s only human.
Overall, these three books give us some idea why mystery novels have become extraordinarily popular over the past decade or more. They satisfy a need that, I believe, the interior, psychological world of “literary fiction” does not – the yearning for stories with plot and narrative, and with characters inhabiting an outside world. And, of course, the desire to read just for good fun.