Thursday, July 04, 2013

Crime Fiction: Miss Montreal by Howard Shrier

With three cracking good novels already under his belt, Canadian author Howard Shrier has delivered a fourth that will not disappoint his many fans. His debut novel, Buffalo Jump, garnered an Arthur Ellis Award in 2008, and a year later he repeated that achievement with Jump’s sequel, High Chicago. Born and reared in Montreal, Quebec, Shrier began his career as a crime reporter for the Montreal Star in 1979. Maturing as one of recent crime fiction’s shining stars, his latest effort, Miss Montreal (Vintage Canada), takes him back to the place of his youth for a story that will resonate with anyone who knows the city, and will earn Shrier many new followers.

Sammy Adler was not a natural athlete: as a 12-year-old at camp, he was the bane of every baseball coach, his peers scrambling to fill the lineup with other boys. But another camp kid, Jonah Geller, took Sammy under his wing, coaching him in the proper batting stance, how to read a pitcher, the proper swing. Sammy tried to take it all in and adjust his game, but there’s a limit to what one person can teach another. Sammy’s seminal moment came when he hit a line drive into the first baseman’s glove for the game-ending out.

By all rights, Sammy should have been consigned to the Hall of Shame, the subject of cruel jokes that would follow him for the rest of his life. But somehow all of that doesn’t matter when, decades later, Jonah Geller--now a private eye working out of Toronto--suddenly receives a call from Sammy’s grandfather, Arthur Moscoe, telling him that Sammy is dead. He’s been bludgeoned to death, a Star of David carved into his chest.

So opens Miss Montreal, a real corker of a tale.

Although they’d drifted out of touch over the years, Jonah Geller was Sammy’s closest childhood friend. The 83-year-old Moscoe, dying of cancer and unconvinced that Montreal’s finest will bring Sammy’s killers to book, now hires Jonah to investigate Sammy’s murder. Because Jonah can’t turn for help to his usual partner, Jenn Raudsepp--who remains in Toronto, recovering from bullet wounds suffered during their previous case--he instead calls in Dante Ryan, a reformed hit man who travels from Boston to give him a hand. Volatile at the best of times, Ryan is especially unpredictable as he tries to cope with his wife having left him and taken their son with her; but he shows up, bringing with him a small arsenal of weapons and an attitude to match.

The police probe into Sammy’s death is not helped by the fact that one of the detectives on the case is a staunch Francophone who refuses to cooperate with Jonah. As a journalist, Sammy had made his share of enemies. Recently, he’d been working on two stories: the first one about how Afghan immigrants were adapting to Quebec. Jonah questions a young Afghan woman Sammy had interviewed for his story, but she’s evasive. Jonah and Dante leave her company having learned little. When they meet her again, this time away from her father’s shop, they find that they’re being tailed by a couple of Syrian thugs.

The second story Sammy was pursuing focused on an influential right-wing nationalist politician, Laurent Lortie, who seeks to keep Quebec for the Quebeqois--the French-speaking people who comprise the historical core of the province, and who feel that their language and culture are being threatened by the wave of immigrants. That tension dates from the original conflict between the two founding peoples, the French and the English, and persists even 200 years later. Lately, though, the tensions have been ramping up, with threats, beatings and fire-bombings.

How might Sammy’s two story leads have figured into his death? Jonah and Dante must weave their way through the troubled waters of multiethnic Montreal, aided only by a detective who hates Anglos, to thwart a plot with explosive consequences.

With its evocative back-story about two adolescent boys struggling to fit in with summer camp life, Miss Montreal had me hooked from the start. Shrier deftly sets up the reader for the poignant news of Sammy’s demise, and uses that hook to lead us effortlessly into an atmospheric tale that captures glimpses of Jewish Montreal in the 1950s and carries us forward to the changing face of the city today. As James Lee Burke does with Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel, Shrier offers up a good cop/bad cop team in Jonah Geller and Dante Ryan. He combines that here with a topical plot full of twists and virtually nonstop action. All in all, Miss Montreal is the strongest entry in an already very strong series, and leaves this reader looking forward to Jonah Geller’s next outing. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked
submit my comment didn't appear. Grrrr... well I'm
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