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Book Reviews Punishment: Linden MacIntyre’s thriller marked by unstoppable momentum and a serpentine storyline

Bad things happen to good people in Linden MacIntyre’s new novel.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Title
Punishment
Author
Linden MacIntyre
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Random House Canada
Pages
421
Price
$32
Year
2014

When I started hearing about Linden MacIntyre's new novel, Punishment, it was frequently compared to another book I love: Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. Whether MacIntyre's read Mystic River, I couldn't say. I would wager so, but only because it would seem that, having written a book as knife-twistingly powerful as Punishment, he may be a devotee of the masters of suspense and crime writing, and Lehane is certainly a modern master.

Which is not to say that Punishment is derivative of any source that I know of; I have never read anything quite like it. It may echo the work of your favorite crime writers – or chroniclers of caustic small-town dynamics such as David Adams Richards – but this book stands adroitly on its own legs.

Tony Breau, a guard at the Kingston Penitentiary forced into early retirement under muddied circumstances, returns to his childhood home of St. Ninian in Nova Scotia. Shortly after arriving, he is drawn into a situation involving the death of a local girl named Mary Stewart. Her body was found in the house of one Dwayne Strickland, a handsome and canny scofflaw who, locals suspect, had something to do with Mary's death. Strickland spent time in Kingston Pen, it turns out; over the course of the narrative it is revealed that he and Breau had some dealings while they both toiled there, one behind bars and the other minding them. Add to this a grieving grandmother of the deceased girl – who shares history with Breau – and a hothead ex-Southie cop, also terminated under a cowl of secrecy, who has his own ideas about frontier justice. Now you've got yourself a powder-keg situation, partner. Everyone holds secrets, everyone has their own agenda, and if a resident of St. Ninian is holding one hand out in kinship you'd better bet the other hand is hiding a knife behind their back.

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To say much more about the plot would be a disservice to the serpentine storyline MacIntyre sets in motion from the first page. I love plots where a character we care for and view as noble makes a small decision, a bad one contrary to their nature; a negative situation develops as a result, which needs to be offset by another decision, and another, and then that good and noble person finds themselves pulled into a nether realm of tragic compromises and worsening circumstances which they can neither wrench or redeem themselves from. Things go from good to okay to pretty bad to bad to really bad to someplace they never imagined themselves being, not in a million years. The momentum is unstoppable.

At this point some readers might be saying to themselves, Is this THE Linden MacIntyre we're talking about? The literary writer, veteran newsman, and Giller Prize winner? So you're telling me he's written a … what? Crime thriller? To which I might reply: In my estimation, yeah. It has all the trappings. And if those readers thought that a crime-themed novel could not possibly contain all the touchstones of powerful writing – incisive characterization, setting, and detail, all wedded to a propulsive plot – well, they and I would sit in different camps.

The writing on display in Punishment is strong, as it is in all of MacIntyre's work. The characters are utterly believable, their actions making sense within a complex morality-driven narrative. MacIntyre does such a good job at sketching the village of St. Ninian, employing just the right details about its places and people to situate the reader within it. He understands human weakness and motivation; in this novel he has put those talents, so evident in earlier and much-loved works, in the service of a propulsive plot which holds, as the PR people might say, "many twists, revelations, and betrayals." It urges a reader to stay up deep into the night as I did, flipping pages feverishly.

It is terrible to watch awful things befall good people, isn't it? Painful to follow the mounting, irreducible inevitability of circumstance – choices made, roads followed or not followed, the flinching compromises made – that will lead to certain calamity, yet in a fictional setting it can be counted as a great and giddy thrill. The wire work that a good writer does to make it all happen, where a character never compromises his or her nature and is always looking for a way to make good again but at some point it becomes impossible because they have been undone by everyday demons or, worse, by their love or compassion for other people – their urge to help someone else or to make their own life just a little better, which is what all of us want. As a reader you can trace that chain of decisions back and ask yourself: Would I have acted any different? Knowing the outcome, seeing how dire it gets, perhaps you might claim so. But of course we never know the shape of our own lives until that line has been mapped.

Dennis Lehane is a master at books that follow that kind of snaky moral line. So is MacIntyre. But readers will discover that Punishment is not Mystic River. It is its own wondrous beast, every bit as vigorous as Lehane's own brilliant work. With it, MacIntyre cements his reputation as one of our country's most vital writers.

Craig Davidson's novel Cataract City was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award.

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