Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Mystery novels combined Lyn Hamilton's love of words and ancient cultures Add to ...

Lyn Hamilton, a mystery novelist known for her contributions to Canadian cultural life and her instrumental role in developing Toronto's opera house, has died at the age of 65.

At the age of 50, after a career in public relations writing press releases and annual reports, Ms. Hamilton began to pen fiction. But instead of amateur murder tales, her Lara McClintoch Archeological Mystery Series gave meticulous accounts of distant lands, their traditions and histories.

Cheryl Hamilton, her sister, said the motivation to write came from a deep respect and desire to preserve early cultures: "[Ms. Hamilton]was very critical of relic hunters who destroy archaeological sites and remove precious artifacts, because they are stealing clues to the history of ancient civilizations."

Lyn Hamilton was born in 1944 and grew up in Etobicoke. Her mother was a librarian and her father a lawyer and politician.

When Ms. Hamilton was growing up, she would dream of exotic locales, always fascinated by distant cultures and mores. Early family adventures included climbing pyramids in Mexico and Egypt. She liked to read books that transported her to places she had never been, far away from her everyday life.

At the University of Toronto, Ms. Hamilton majored in English and took courses in psychology and anthropology. When she graduated in 1967, she hoped for a publishing job, but could not find one in Toronto, and instead moved to Los Angeles to work as an assistant at a Canadian architecture firm.

Her start in PR came when she walked into the office of an editor at the LA Times and convinced him to run a piece on the practice of architecture.

"Perhaps it was my mini-skirt …,"she later remarked in an interview.

When she returned to Canada, she worked in communications for private companies and the public service. In the 1980s, she helped develop a groundbreaking awareness campaign on domestic violence.

Throughout her adult life, Ms. Hamilton continued to study anthropology, in her spare time taking courses in subjects such as mythology and Egyptian hieroglyphics. She brought her passion for archaeology into her work when she won the post of director of Ontario's Cultural Programs Branch. She was responsible for the province's archaeological projects, heritage conservation, and museum programs. In an interview for the job, one of the panel members, an archaeologist, remarked that Ms. Hamilton had taken more courses on the subject that he had.

On vacation in 1995, Ms. Hamilton returned to the Yucatan to visit Maya sites. She was trying to decipher the glyphs attached to each day on the Mayan calendar, and thought it might be interesting to write a novel where a contemporary story paralleled one set in the ancient past, using the day's glyph to dictate the action.

Her first book, The Xibalba Murders , was published in 1997. Each of her 10 subsequent books took place in a different country: Thailand, the Orkney and Easter Islands, China. The lead character was always Lara McClintoch, a feisty 40-something who owned a small Toronto antique shop (something Ms. Hamilton dreamt about doing). Ms. McClintoch would travel the world sourcing materials for her shop and solving murder mysteries along the way.

When people asked Ms. Hamilton whether she was like her lead character, she would say, "Lara is younger, fitter and better looking." But Ms. Hamilton's sister says, "I think she and her character were simpatico."

Before Ms. Hamilton began writing a mystery, her Toronto condominium would fill with books about the country where the story was to be set, including cookbooks to test local recipes. She would study the ancient culture for about five months, and also travel there to learn about contemporary customs and seek out the fictional possibilities.

Her sister recalls accompanying her on a research tour of Easter Island for The Moai Murders . "While others were relaxing after visiting the ancient stone carvings," she said, "we walked along dusty roads, followed by unfriendly big dogs, looking for a police station for Lara."

Then, Ms. Hamilton would start to write, usually on Sundays, reserving weekdays to think about plot directions. "She ended up writing really quickly, she did so much work ahead of time," her sister said.

Ms. Hamilton's books were translated into Russian, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, German, Hungarian, and Chinese. The Celtic Riddle , the fourth book, served as the basis for a 2003 Murder She Wrote television movie, starring Angela Lansbury. The eighth, The Magyar Venus , was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel.

In 2000, Richard Bradshaw, the late general director of the Canadian Opera Company, invited Ms. Hamilton to work on realizing Toronto's opera house, a project that had been about 30 years in the making. As director of public affairs for the COC, Ms. Hamilton was instrumental in finally getting the project built.

"She was very wise," said Kevin Garland, then COC's executive director. "She understood all of what happens at the various levels of civil service and the political staff, and how you can basically build a coalition among those people to get the right answers."

Whenever things were difficult at work, Ms. Garland would go into Ms. Hamilton's office and ask: "What would Lara McClintoch do?" When Ms. Garland left the COC for the National Ballet, Ms. Hamilton gave her a publicity photo to keep in her desk drawer and consult whenever she needed Ms. McClintoch's help.

Ms. Hamilton left the COC in 2003 to take up writing full-time. She served as a writer-in-residence for the North York and Kitchener libraries in Ontario, helping to edit the manuscripts of some 100 local writers. In the fall of 2007, she taught mystery and suspense writing at University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.

One former student said that even after the class was finished, the teacher took home hundreds of pages of his manuscript, and critiqued each one with care.

Ms. Hamilton's intellectual curiosity and professionalism at work were balanced by her lightness and sense of humour. She loved to walk the city, and shop for shoes and silver jewellery. For her last birthday party, frail from cancer, she was proud to have walked to have her hair and nails done.

Though she had been sick for more than three years, she kept her suffering extremely private. Terry Smith, a close friend and former deputy minister of culture for the province, said, "She enjoyed going out and being with people. She'd say to me afterwards, 'That was so great to go out and be myself, and not be the person who has cancer.'"

Mary Jane Maffini, friend and fellow mystery writer, also admired Ms. Hamilton's bravery. "When she wrote The Chinese Alchemist , her last book, she just picked up, packed up, and went to China by herself. She didn't just go to Beijing. She hired a car and went off to research the areas that were relevant for the book. She walked alone in the towns, in these communities, whatever it took to get the details she wanted."

Lyn Hamilton

Lyn Hamilton was born on Aug. 6, 1944. She died on Sept. 10, 2009, of cancer. She leaves her mother Gwen Hamilton, sister Cheryl Hamilton and brother-in-law Michael Cushing.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories