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Bury the Lead, by Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti.Supplied

  • Title: Bury the Lead: A Quill & Packet Mystery
  • Author: Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press
  • Pages: 352

The murder-mystery genre depends upon a bounded world. Perhaps more than any other kind of book, the borders of the whodunit must be more or less set and known from the outset – otherwise how does the reader make sense of and keep tabs on the cast of suspects and their motives? How else can they follow along with the official or unofficial sleuth who by choice or chance ends up on the hunt for the killer? How else can readers try to get ahead of the investigator, looking around corners and up around the bend to see what’s coming?

Book recommendations from Globe staff and readers

In Bury the Lead, Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti (formerly of The Globe and Mail) set the boundaries of their mystery twice-over, in the small, fictional Ontario cottage town of Port Ellis – a stand-in for any number of real-life locales – and within the theatre community and the playhouse.

The premise of the book is recognizable: A staging is upset by the death – murder! – of a famous actor. The small-town is rocked by the crime. Local jealousies, rivalries, histories and secrets bubble to the surface as the de facto detective, in this case Quill & Packet journalist Cat Conway, works to unravel the story and catch the killer – and to stay alive herself while doing so.

A familiar premise does the book no disservice. The risk of telling such a story is that it becomes clichéd or so trope-laden that it’s indistinguishable from its peers. But Bury the Lead benefits from Hilton’s experience as a novelist and Renzetti’s experience as a journalist. It delivers a familiar but entertaining mystery that’s well-paced, guided by three-dimensional characters, full of details and blessed with depth beyond its mysteries.

Details matter in novels. Few things, perhaps nothing, can save a book if the details are off. You can tell when a writer has no idea what they’re writing about. Renzetti knows how journalism works and it shows. Together, Hilton and Renzetti also render a quaint-yet-sinister cottage town that feels like the many such burgs that dot countless points on maps of Ontario.

The characters in Bury the Lead are archetypes. Conway is the dogged journalist with a checkered past, ostensibly washed up in Port Ellis. Eliot Fraser is famous, entitled, domineering, anti-woke and predatory, reminiscent in ways of Marlon Brando or Peter O’Toole. The town’s wealthy developer family – the Mercers – are the local jet set and vanguard of the gentrifying force turning the all-Canadian cottage-country town into a getaway destination for the ultrawealthy. The archetypes work because they tell the truth and they aren’t made of cardboard.

Along with the mystery – who killed Fraser during the play? Who is trying to silence Conway as she chases the story and the killer? – the book explores the decline of journalism, life as a woman in the industry, the challenges of motherhood, class tensions, race, the #Me Too movement and more. These subjects flow naturally through the narrative, rarely feeling didactic for the sake of it, but rather a genuine part of the lives of the characters. As with the archetypes, the themes work because they tell the truth and you believe those who grapple with them in the novel are well and truly grappling with them as one might, and does, in life.

With moments of vintage pulp detective and noir fiction, Bury the Lead is also an enjoyable read for the quality of the prose. One of Conway’s colleagues – Bruce, an elder, hippie-ish, small-time journalist – is described as “lean as a piece of licorice.” One morning, Conway awakes after a night of drinks to find “the sunlight nailing my hangover right into the centre of my skull.” The town of Port Ellis is described as “a giant murder mystery game.”

In the final third of the novel, Conway further describes Port Ellis in the book’s most noir-ish lines of all: “Picture-postcard panoramas, Chardonnay on the dock, fresh-baked pies, and laid back luxury” before adding “If you looked carefully, though, it was like peering into the lake: watery depths full of warped shapes and wriggling, slimy life.” The description isn’t just aesthetics, it’s part of the story. Everyone seems drawn back to and stuck in the town, carrying secrets and pasts that run up against a changing present and a time of reckoning. The “wriggling, slimy life” is brought to the surface, exposed to the light.

Bury the Lead is occasionally marked by twists that are a little on the nose – unmentionable here because they’re spoilers – but even those moments are more fun than hackneyed. The book succeeds because it is self-conscious as a genre book, but it isn’t lazy. The mix of classic settings, tropes, noir-throwbacks, contemporary themes and characters we could imagine meeting brings about a welcome entry to the murder-mystery family. Deeper explorations of place, reckoning and light existential dread add depth that goes beyond the genre. It’s a shrewd combination that Raymond Chandler would have appreciated – and readers will, too.

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