The Code By G.B. Joyce, Penguin Canada, 345 pages, $30
A crime novel that takes place in the world of sports really is a plot on the edge of a razor. The author has to put in enough information to carry the story, but he can’t overwhelm the reader. After all, no one who reads Dick Francis cares about handicapping horses and Myron Bolitar’s sports-management business certainly doesn’t teach us much about maintaining big-name athletes.
So G.B. Joyce’s debut mystery, The Code, set in the world of big-league hockey, has its work cut out. Luckily, G.B. Joyce is Gare Joyce, one of Canada’s finest sportswriters, an award-winner who knows how to tell a tale, which makes The Code simply terrific.
I must confess that I know little about hockey. The nice little chart at the beginning of the book, which I presume represents Brad Shade’s lifetime hockey career, may as well have been written in Swahili. However, the first line of prose is: “Understand that the league is a systematic organization of hatreds.” From then on, the reader is hooked.
Joyce takes us on a brief, witty and devilishly clever trip into those hatreds, told by our guy, Brad, whose career ended badly with a torn ligament, whose agent lost his millions in lousy real-estate investments and who is, as we meet him, standing in the Frankfurt airport trying to explain that his passport, ticket and computer have been stolen.
Brad’s tale moves back to the United States and then to Toronto, where he is planning to play in an exhibition game under a legendary coach. When the coach is killed, Brad finds himself following a very twisted trail.
This is a very finely tuned plot, with some glitches that are forgivable because the writing and characters are so very, very good. There’s plenty of behind-the-lines chat to amuse the hockey fans, but even if, like me, you have never watched a puck, you will find Brad Shade and The Code good to the final paragraph.
The Girl in the Wall By Alison Preston, Signature Editions, 233 pages, $16.95
Winnipeg’s Alison Preston is becoming one of Canada’s most consistently good crime writers. The Girl in the Wall, her fifth novel, is as funny and smart as the last four, but it takes plotting to a new high.
“Morven Rankin was born dead. … It ran in her family.” That opening line is irresistible and creepily original. It takes us right into the head of an unusual woman whose story occupies the first half of the novel set in Preston’s favourite location, the Norwood Flats neighbourhood in Winnipeg.
The second half of the tale takes us to the present day and former police inspector Frank Foote, whose retirement business is home renovation. When a wall is opened up, a skeleton appears. Work halts and the investigation begins. The relationship of the body to Morven Rankin (victim, witness or worse) brings us back into the historical mystery, and it’s one of Preston’s best ever.
Stifling Folds of Love By John Brooke, Signature Editions, 317 pages, $18.95
It has been 10 years since John Brooke’s last Aliette Nouvelle mystery, and that is far, far too long. Brooke is easily one of Canada’s best crime writers, and this series, set in the environs of Strasbourg (the far environs) at France’s eastern border, is a real delight. Nouvelle is a strong character with a charming voice, but the books would not be as good if it were not for Commissaire Claude Neon and his extremely French police team. We are in Fred Vargas territory here.
There are several dead bodies, all well-known celebrities, all ex-lovers of the town’s near-legendary femme fatale, Pearl Serein. Just what makes Pearl irresistible is as mysterious as the heart attacks that finished off her lads. When Neon himself appears to be next on the list, or at least close to next, Aliette Nouvelle has to take charge of the mess already dubbed “the Pearl Effect.”
This is a smart, sophisticated mystery with lots of Gallic verve. Definitely the best of a very good series.
The Burning Edge By Rick Mofina, Mira, 384 pages, $9.99
Slick, smart and fast-moving: Rick Mofina has the thriller formula down pat in this terrific chase novel. Lisa Palmer is a newly widowed mother. On a trip home in upstate New York, she witnesses a horrible crime: Four men are killed in an armoured-car robbery. One of them is an off-duty FBI agent, and Lisa becomes the bureau’s major witness. But she’s also the target of a ruthless killer.
Mofina adds an FBI investigator with a personal secret and brings back his crusading investigative journalist, Jack Gannon, to add more spice to this already hefty mix. This is one of Mofina’s very best books and it’s guaranteed to keep you glued to the page.
The Lies Have It By Jill Edmondson, Iguana, 252 pages, $11.95
Been to a fetish party lately? Even if you aren’t a habitué, you’ll like this stylish, smart novel set in Toronto’s downtown arts and culture scene.
This series, featuring aspiring musician-turned-private eye Sasha Jackson, has been optioned for television and it has all the hallmarks of success. There is a winsome PI, a sexy cop for a potential love interest and Hogtown as we would all love it to be: racy, witty and full of interesting, polymorphous perversity.
The mystery is a nicely plotted whodunit, but the real charm here is the setting. Edmondson, a communications professor, knows her town intimately. Even better, she knows how readers want it to be.
Hang Down Your Head By Janice MacDonald, Turnstone, 364 pages, $16
Who knew that folksingers, so loaded with joy, could turn murderous? That’s the premise of this novel by Edmonton author Janice MacDonald, who happens to be a folkie fan.
With all the banjo strummin’ and four-part hummin’, there’s a dead man in the mix and folk-music professional Randy Craig is right in the middle of it. The setting is the Folkways Collection library of the University of Alberta, and Craig has her dream job as curator. There’s also her very satisfying relationship with a local cop. But then the son of a millionaire benefactor of the library ends up dead, and Randy is off-tune with no alibi and plenty of motive. That’s when a dream turns into a nightmare.
This isn’t a great novel, but it is a pleasant, light way to spend a snowy weekend.
Margaret Cannon is The Globe and Mail's crime-fiction reviewer.