Will Ferguson, the most amiable author in Canada, bristles ever so slightly at the word “departure” – a silent reaction easily detectable over the long-distance line from his home in the amiable Garrison Woods neighbourhood of Calgary.
It was his own publishers who first mooted the idea that Ferguson's new novel, 419, was a departure for an author better known as a travel writer (and three-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour).
But what does that say about the rest of Ferguson's now-substantial oeuvre, which includes such well-received Leacock-winners as Generica (later published as HappinessTM)and travel memoirs Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw and Beyond Belfast?
“A departure from what?” he asks, with an uncharacteristic hint of complaint. “You can’t keep departing. At some point, you have to arrive.”
So let’s say that 419 marks Will Ferguson’s arrival as Canada’s undisputable master of the page-turning suspense novel, easily the equal of any international master one might care to name.
Taking its title from the chapter of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud, Ferguson’s novel follows a fatal thread from suburban Calgary deep into a dangerous West African milieu where polite young men ruthlessly cheat gullible Westerners and millions of displaced others struggle to survive.
It fulfils all the promise of the genre, up to and including a succession of knock-you-sideways twists at the end, but with real characters whose fates matter. It is exactly as the author advertises: “a book with weight, but one that really propels you forward.”
With its rich depiction of life in contemporary Nigeria, from the arid Sahel in the north to deep in the dangerous, oil-drenched Niger Delta, 419 extends as much as it departs from his earlier travel writing, Ferguson says. But even he admits surprise at the twists and turns in the creative journey that ultimately produced 419.
“My original idea was very much to write a straightforward adventure, but the story took its own shape,” he says. The more he learned about Nigeria – a setting virtually dictated by his initial intention to write about e-mail fraud – the more culturally curious he became. And curiosity is “a hell of a thing,” according to Ferguson. “It can really derail you.”
But it can also lead to higher ground, which Ferguson achieved when he made a crucial decision to abandon the conventional narrative he began with, as told from the viewpoint of an intrepid Western heroine who ventures into the heart of darkness seeking retribution for an e-mail scam that bankrupted her elderly parents. “I wanted to shift that,” he says, and he did so by telling the same story largely through the eyes of his Nigerian characters, saints and sinners alike, whose lives are disrupted – and fates sealed – by the naive heroine’s dangerous quest.
Ferguson’s Nigeria is throbbingly alive; his Calgary – unnamed but unmistakable – is cold and wan.
“That was a conscious decision made very early on and it really paid off, because the book felt more honest to me,” Ferguson says. “It really came alive for me once I decided to get into the Nigerian story.”
The wonder is that he got so deeply into Nigeria, with all its regional and religious divisions, its massive wealth and wild criminality, without ever visiting the country.
The blood-and-oil Niger Delta, site of some of the book’s most compelling action, was out of the question. “I’m not going to die for my craft,” Ferguson says. A planned trip to the Sahel dissolved when “Muslims killed a bunch of Christians, Christians killed a bunch of Muslims, then a bunch of aid workers got kidnapped and my wife looked at me and said, ‘No.’”
But in the one adventure that is most important to him as a novelist, Ferguson, a family man with school-age children, is dauntless. The “daydreaming” that produces his fiction, he says, is fuelled by intense research. “The notion that the imagination is this free spirit that must not be corralled or contained or directed is very odd to me,” he adds. “I think the more you know a subject, the richer it is and the more you can draw on it.”
His depictions of life in the Delta draw on deep reading in both anthropology and up-to-the-minute “danger zone” journalism. His vividly drawn scammers speak in dialogue cut and pasted from courtroom testimony.
“The more you research it, the more you’re able to make it up accurately,” Ferguson says.
Making up “accurate” fictions of international intrigue has become something of a specialty among 21st-century Canadian writers, creating a new subgenre quite distinct from the foreign-set immigrant fiction it runs alongside. Among those who have taken their readers on such memorable, purely imaginative journeys are Steven Heighton (to Tibet, in Every Lost Country), Steven Galloway ( The Cellist of Sarajevo) and Camilla Gibb (war-torn Hanoi in The Beauty of Humanity Movement).
With 419, Ferguson has advanced to the front rank of such adventurers. But it’s no departure from his usual terrain.
“A story grabs you and you have to write it, whether it’s a travel narrative or fiction,” he says. “Something grabs you.”
If justice were to prevail in bookstores – as it manifestly does not in the world of 419 – readers will be grabbed just as hard.