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book review

Title: A Matter of Malice

Author: Thomas King

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada, 392 pp., $22.99

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Thomas King in 2014. (File Photo).Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Thomas King’s artistic career is so varied it’s impossible to pigeonhole him into a single category. He’s written non-fiction, novels and children’s books. He’s edited anthologies of contemporary Canadian native fiction and written CBC scripts and directed a short film he wrote, I’m Not The Indian You Had in Mind. He also been nominated for and won some of Canadian literature’s biggest prizes – the Governor-General Awards and the RBC Taylor Prize. In other words, at 75, King has nothing to prove in CanLit and can write pretty much whatever he wishes, when he pleases. Periodically, what pleases him is to turn his attention to crime fiction.

His Thumps DreadfulWater series began in 2002 (with the ever-apt title DreadfulWater Shows Up) but King wasn’t the listed author. Instead he turned to a pseudonym, Hartley GoodWeather, to carve out a separate identity for the mystery novels, or perhaps to make clear they were different than what he tended to write – a mix of oral storytelling common to Indigenous tribes and linear narratives more common in the West – under his own name. DreadfulWater showed up again four years later, in The Red Power Murders, in 2006. Then the pseudonym vanished.

But DreadfulWater did not. He returned last year in Cold Skies, now published under King’s name. This was a much longer, deeper, more contemplative book than the earlier two mysteries, making clear that Thumps was a strong character in his own right, with deep ties to his hometown of Chinook after leaving years of police sleuthing in rural California behind. A Matter of Malice extends King’s crime fiction winning streak, an engaging mystery with memorable characters that I, for one, could not put down.

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DreadfulWater begins the novel in a less-than-cheery mood. He is back in Chinook after an extended visit to see his on-again, off-again girlfriend Claire, in the throes of chemotherapy and increasingly secretive. Not long after his return he’s contacted by a television crew for the reality show Malice Aforethought, devoted to true crime narratives. (“Malice Aforethought doesn’t solve cases. Show like that kick up dirt and pick at scabs” cracks one character.)

What piques their interest about DreadfulWater, and specifically the interest of producer Nina Maslow, is his opinion about the mysterious death of Trudy Samuels, the daughter of a wealthy family in town. The official verdict was death by misadventure. Most people believed she had taken her own life. Maslow, however, was convinced it was murder and that perhaps, Samuels’s boyfriend, Tobias Rattler, then “just another kid off the reservation” and now a prominent novelist, was responsible.

DreadfulWater isn’t inclined to get involved, and especially not at the behest of a television show more interested in greasing the wheel for ratings than for sensitive investigations. DreadfulWater gets involved in the case when Maslow turns up dead, his interest upped when he learns she kept a comprehensive file on one of his pet cases, the Obsidian Murders. A long-dormant cold case is one thing, but a fresh murder investigation is quite a different matter and DreadfulWater realizes he is, indeed, the (retired) detective for the job.

With plot so central to A Matter of Malice, King’s writing errs on the side of understated, so that his literary prowess gets out of the way of moving the story along. But every now and then, a choice turn of phrase stands out and delights, as when DreadfulWater thinks “There was nothing that so described a life without purpose … as spending an afternoon chasing a squirrel around a morgue. With each block he walked, the more the rodent became a metaphor for all the things he had lost and the things that he had not been able to find.” Dry humour and quick wit carry the day in A Matter of Malice, elevating the story and the characters all the more.

King also allows Thumps to contemplate his life with more than mere grace notes. One scene that resonated with me was when Claire, DreadfulWater’s paramour, returns to divulge the secret she was holding dear while they ate breakfast at a restaurant Thumps almost never frequented. (The one he does frequent, Al’s, has too many prying eyes.) There, away from the usual locals, DreadfulWater can react with the appropriate shock, discomfort and confusion, and think seriously about his and Claire’s future together.

Once Nina’s killer is revealed and the truth about Trudy’s death is established, Thumps DreadfulWater is back on his porch, messenger bag over his shoulder, suitcase in hand. The California coast beckons, as does the ghost of long-unsolved cases. Thumps may be retired, but he remains a detective. King may be a writer of all stripes, but there’s a way his crime fiction that stands apart, and out, from the rest of his work.

It’s good to have Thumps DreadfulWater back in the regular crime fiction rotation and I know I’m not the only one hoping that King has a few more adventures for this engaging, singular, sleuth.

Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World (Knopf Canada).

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