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If it weren't that things have gone so well for him since, there would be tragedy in the fact that Canadian novelist Trevor Ferguson had not only to adopt a pen name but move into a whole new genre of fiction in order to finally win widespread appreciation for his art. After years spent laboring over literary novels -- such as High Water Chants, Onyx John and The Fire Line -- that enjoyed critical acclaim but negligible sales, in 1995 Ferguson decided that if he was to continue writing, "something had to change." So he took on the pseudonym "John Farrow" -- a conflation of his own real first name (John Trevor Ferguson) and the surname of a small-time hood, Caleb Farrow, who had figured in The Fire Line -- and tried his hand at composing a mystery thriller. The result was 1999's City of Ice, which The Vancouver Sun said "might be the best book ever produced in Canada," Booklist dubbed "a character-driven mystery of the highest order" and Ferguson's fellow wordsmiths thought so highly of that they nominated it for an Arthur Ellis Award.
Set in modern-day Montreal, where Ferguson has lived for most of his life, City of Ice was a carefully herded stampede of biker gang violence, Russian thuggery, civic corruption, premeditated murder and squabbling between Canadian and international law-enforcement agencies. And at the center of the book's complex plot sat Émile Cinq-Mars, a French-descended sergeant-detective who, thanks to anonymous tips over the years, had become something of a legendary figure within the Montreal Urban Community Police Force. Headstrong, antisocial and periodically smug, Cinq-Mars could also be compassionate, and it was this conscientious balance of character that carried readers along even when, on occasion, elements of the tale didn't quite work. Cinq-Mars was an old-fashioned cop in a new-fashioned world where values and morals are dramatically less clear than they used to be, and it was inevitable that he should be likened to Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse as well as John Harvey's Charlie Resnick. Comparisons might also be made with Zé Coelho, the detective protagonist in Robert Wilson's extraordinary A Small Death in Lisbon (1999).
That City of Ice has spawned a sequel should surprise no one; that Ice Lake deserves as much notoriety as Cinq-Mars' first outing just might. Again, the action occurs in winter-embraced Montreal (heck, does it ever warm up in Quebec's largest city?). The corpse of a man, shot once through the neck, has been pulled out of an ice-fishing hole. It's now up to the 50-ish Cinq-Mars and his younger Anglo partner, Detective Bill Mathers, to both find the murderer and relate this slaying to a scheme that involves an idealistic Native American researcher, a gigantic pharmaceutical company and the distribution of lethal drug cocktails to AIDS patients in the eastern United States. As is becoming characteristic of Ferguson/Farrow's thrillers, it's hard sometimes to tell the good guys from the bad. And though the story's pace flags a bit when Cinq-Mars is not at center stage, either engaged in verbal jousting with a corporate CEO or ruminating on his professional worth ("There are days when I know I'm useful. Other days when I believe the criminals are fortunate to have such a bungling idiot as an adversary"), Ice Lake maintains a decisive narrative drive, its facets expertly revealed. Also revealed here are new layers of Cinq-Mars' makeup, as he deals with the imminent demise of his father.
With his third Farrow book "in the mental works" and the writing already begun on another novel to appear under his real name, the 53-year-old Ferguson talked with January Magazine about his slow climb to success, Montreal's appropriateness as a crime fiction setting, the downside of the medical industry becoming a big business and why the times may be ripe for the rise of Canadian novelists.
J. Kingston Pierce: At what age did you set your sights on penning fiction for a living?
Trevor Ferguson: I chose to become a novelist at the age of 16. Any jobs I took were chosen only to support myself as a writer. These include, in rough chronological order: kitchen flunky, timekeeper, bridgeman, heavy equipment operator, mail sorter, laborer for a small town, worm picker, community newspaper editor, printer and taxi driver. Since becoming a novelist, I have worked as a bar waiter, a typewriter salesman and lately, from time to time, I teach creative writing at [Montreal's] Concordia University, although that is no longer to support myself, but because I enjoy the experience and learn from it.
I'd be derelict in my responsibilities as a journalist if I didn't ask you, What in the world is a "worm picker"?
A worm picker picks worms out of the ground for sale to sports fishermen. Truckloads of men and women are brought to golf courses and parkland at night and, with flashlights attached to their heads and sawdust in their fingers, they pick worms.
Prior to the publication of City of Ice, you were called Canada's "finest contemporary author that most people had never heard of." Your work received favorable reviews, but commercial sales were pretty dismal. I've heard that none of your first five books sold more than 700 copies each. How did those lean times make you feel?
The lean times were not so difficult to bear in the beginning, as I was ever hopeful. My books were reviewed at such a high level that I presumed that success was inevitable. When that proved not to be the case, I did have a problem maintaining my morale and confidence. Success breeds success, failure breeds failure. It's difficult for anyone, but particularly so for a creative artist, to slough off the negative environment and maintain an intense and positive disposition. I was disgruntled, but never bitter. Angry, but never fundamentally discouraged. For me, the real battle was always with my work, and I just never threw myself into the issues that help determine how things go in the marketplace. Looking back, there's no question that I was poorly "handled," and I regret that I didn't have the wherewithal to figure that out and change things.
During those years, did you ever consider giving up your dream to be a novelist?
Well, I was a novelist from the age of 16 until the age of 47 or 48 when economic success came my way, and I can tell you that I never thought of giving up. Before writing City of Ice I considered writing for film or TV, or trying my hand at journalism, but these were options to try earning a living, and had nothing to do with giving up. I tried sometimes to will myself to give up, but I could never sustain the thought for more than a moment or two. My life just never made sense to me unless it included writing.
What made you believe that you could succeed eventually?
I didn't know that I would succeed, necessarily, and I was certainly prepared to go on being a novelist who wrote what were considered to be good books that nobody read. But I could never conceive of myself being in any way content with a life that did not include writing. So I was stuck with it, period. That's how it felt at the time. I was stuck with it. I did survive, like a car drawing on gas fumes, from support in various quarters. Critical praise, the enthusiasm of French readers, for instance, in Quebec after my English readership had completely collapsed and the respect of other writers: these things helped get me through the darkest hours.
What finally convinced you to try your hand at writing detective thrillers? And did doing so feel like a sellout, at least initially?
I didn't start in on detective fiction as a conviction; rather, I knew well that I was taking a risk. Many literary novelists before me had failed. But I decided to tackle the form in the same manner as I would a literary novel: to give it everything I had. I would not look down at the form, or see it as a minor commitment or a minor accomplishment. I would make the project as large a challenge as I could make it, and succeed at a high level or fail royally. With that organizing principle, I had no internal squabble about selling out, although I did expect -- but have not received -- that kind of remark.
So you don't take the writing of your crime novels any less seriously than you do the composition of your more mainstream works?
Seriousness is not the issue. Both bodies of work are serious. My detective fiction deals with serious issues that are real and current, and my characters are no less important to me than characters in any novel I write. What is different is the approach. In my literary work I'm looking to penetrate the unknown, to reveal the secrets there; in my crime fiction, I'm looking to use what I do know, as a novelist and as a researcher, and deliver it with impact and integrity. The processes require different turns of the mind, but both are serious, both make their specific demands and both present severe challenges. In both cases, the final verdict is determined by whether or not the stories "work," and while they move through different mental space and achieve different goals, the internal integrity of one is similar to the internal integrity of the other.
What do you think are your principal strengths and weaknesses as a novelist, in general, and as a crime novelist, specifically?
My principal strengths as a novelist, in general: union of the whole; broad imaginative range that draws upon broad personal experience; strong narrative drive; characterizations of inherently interesting people that are rich and multifaceted; unique perspectives, themes and locations; fluid and confident writing styles. Weaknesses? I won't allow a fact to get in the way of a good story.
An ability to create "inherently interesting [characters] that are rich and multifaceted." That's interesting, because the criticisms I have heard and read of your two Farrow novels often include suggestions that you're holding back in your characterizations -- that Émile Cinq-Mars' intelligence makes him a rather aloof figure; that his relationship with partner Bill Mathers deserves a bit more emotional heat to make them both seem more credible; and that the bad guys in your books are given more dimensions than the ostensibly good ones. How do you respond to such criticisms?
The vast majority of reviewers of City of Ice and Ice Lake have responded well to Émile Cinq-Mars and respected his nature. "Aloof," to the degree that he is aloof, is a characteristic, not a criticism. Someone might intend a criticism by saying so, but it is of the person rather than the portrayal of the person. You can't call a black cat black and then suggest that that's a criticism. Émile's intelligence, his moral code, his meditative nature may indeed make him aloof from his peers, but that's who he is. That he ponders cosmology, negotiates horse trades, tries to conjure and understand the big picture are aspects to his nature that readers generally seem to appreciate, and if a few critics find these dimensions aloof, and consider that a negative, then that's too bad for me, but that's how it is.
I try to keep the relationship between Mathers and Cinq-Mars real and honest, as that's where credibility lies, not in any worn fictional device where the partners must go at one another to conform to a familiar pattern. Mathers finds ways to influence the course of an investigation, which is exactly what any junior officer must do: find ways to contribute whenever control is clearly not in his hands. Also, the natures of both men are being developed and deepened over a series of books, whereas the bad guys get just one kick at the can. That might give the appearance in any one book that the bad guys are taking precedence. The devil has always had the best music anyway, so devilish bad guys may well overshadow the good, the just and less extravagant people with more colorful natures.
How much detail -- physical, psychological, emotional, etc. -- do you think a fictional character needs in order to appear "alive" to the reader?
That is always a reflex of the moment, of the narrative, of the situation. There is no black-and-white response to that, at least none in which I'd trust. Sometimes a character can be created and made "to live" in a line, in a breath; sometimes to get the full breadth of a life, the brick-by-brick construction of character and personality over an extended period of time with extensive detail is required. For the story's sake, that character had better be "living" all through the process. The mystery of personality, which is what all writers are after, is retrieved through mysterious means, the right echo at the proper moment, an appropriate word, a deft movement. Physicality, emotive resonance, psychological investigation do not by themselves breathe life into a character. These aspects can, however, aid and invigorate our perceptions and understandings.
Montreal isn't an entirely new setting for crime fiction -- wasn't Trevanian's The Main also set there? -- but it is still sufficiently unusual that I have to ask: What about the city makes it an appropriate place in which to set mystery thrillers such as City of Ice and Ice Lake? Does it boast sufficient grit and eccentricities to support a long-running series?
You'd have to add the Kathy Reichs mysteries [Fatal Voyage, etc.] to the Montreal mix as well. Montreal is a crime center. Gang wars have taken over 150 lives in the past four years. More than 100 bombs, each of considerable force, have gone off on our streets during that time, and more than 100 gang-related arsons and another 50 attempted murders have taken place. That's activity equivalent to Belfast during their troubles. We have criminal gangs attempting to undermine the judiciary by killing prison guards, and we've had massive arrests recently which will demand the construction of special courthouses and interim prisons to securely process the accused, not unlike the days of the Italian Mafia trials, with special security provided for the court's officers. We have criminal gangs interconnected with international gangs, and gangs that are popular with the public despite their murderous ways. We have a long-standing tradition of using the American border (remember Prohibition) for illicit import and export and to evade the FBI and the CIA. Russian, Chinese, Jamaican, Italian and Irish gangs all flourish, in addition to our homegrown French gangs, particularly the most brutal chapter in existence of the Hell's Angels. Montreal is also known as the city where Middle East terrorists have cells that plot against American targets. I think the material here for a criminal series is bottomless.
Do you think it is only Americans, like me, who are ignorant of the political and criminal intrigues boiling beneath Montreal's surface complacency? Or are other Canadians blind to these troubles as well?
Canadians are only just becoming aware of the full extent of the problem. As the biker gangs moved into Toronto and other Ontario centers, the national media began to pay more attention. There's still a feeling that the bikers are just rough boys on Harleys, when in fact they are exceptionally well organized, [their gangs are] tremendously difficult to penetrate, they earn billions of dollars in drug money and are remarkably sophisticated in their legal and technical expertise to effect their crimes and avoid prosecution. The Rock Machine has recently been absorbed into the Bandidos, a criminal biker gang out of Texas and I think Americans are equally unaware of the threat these gangs impose.
And what makes Montreal such a magnet for organized crime and gang warfare in the first place?
History. Geography. We're an inland port, which makes us ideal as a drug distribution site. For years, the French were subservient to the English and they were subject to higher poverty levels and crime evolved from that. French criminals were often folk heroes and the Hell's Angels are able to exploit those attitudes to this day, where killers and drug-runners are sometimes treated as rock stars, asked for their autographs, that sort of thing. The proximity to New York, and yet across a border away from the FBI, has always been a crucial element for the gangs here, [one] for them to exploit for profit and, on occasion, [allowing] them to draw upon allies to the south to fight a war at home.
I understand that when you were younger, you had some personal experience with your city's rougher side. Is that correct? And what did that experience entail?
I was raised in a rough community that was Mafia controlled. As kids we tried to never walk anywhere alone, it was just too dangerous. I've worked in Mafia bars and, while it's not an event connected to these sorts of criminal activities, I was assaulted, strangled and left for dead when I was 11. I survived, but that early exposure to violence ended my childhood abruptly and put me on the road at a young age. At 14 I was deported from the U.S. as an illegal alien (I was a runaway) and at 16 I left home for good.
I'm intrigued by your mention of having been reared in a Mafia-controlled community. There are many people today who say that stories about large-scale Mafia operations are a product more of fiction than of fact, that organized crime is less organized than we've been led to believe by myriad movies and TV shows and novels. Do you agree that our perceptions of modern organized crime are diminished by the overstated influence of such organizations in fiction?
I don't contend that organized crime has been accurately portrayed in film and on TV. But the depth that organized crime has penetrated my society is well beyond what people imagine to be true. There are 1,100 strip clubs in the Province of Quebec and only one is not under the control of organized crime. Every stripper knows that she can advance her situation by passing along information gleaned from a judge or a lawyer or a politician who may have misspoken during an inebriated moment. We have organized crime trying to influence the prison system by shooting guards, infiltrating government tax computers to gain information on prominent citizens, operating money laundering systems in the billions of dollars, which affects financial markets, companies and banks -- and none of the above is fiction, it's all fact. I can't speak for the U.S., but suspect that the size of the country allows for more gangs and therefore less powerful gangs and a greater profusion of criminals who are allowed to operate independently. The recent arrest of more than 100 gang members in Quebec may change the landscape here, at least temporarily. We shall see.
Give me your conception of police detective Émile Cinq-Mars. How do you see him -- both the good and the bad? And do you accept comparisons between him and Colin Dexter's fictional sleuth, Inspector Morse?
Émile Cinq-Mars suffers from a high moral code, which is intricately connected to his religious life and his spiritual musings. A moral cop is a good thing, but it can also be argued that he makes it up as he goes along. In other words, he will scoff at the law if his moral code, in his opinion, answers to a higher authority. This is not usually how we want our cops to behave and there is no question that Cinq-Mars can be righteous and sometimes blindly stubborn. He's awfully smart, however, and this is where Morse comes in. I like the idea of a smart detective, believe that the real source of this gentleman is Holmes and I prefer the detectives, such as Holmes, Morse and Cinq-Mars, who rely upon the intellect, but particularly their intuitive intelligence, rather than forensics, computer analysis, science or even brute force. Morse and Cinq-Mars are both sufficiently individualistic that I'm not concerned about the comparison at all, and welcome it, for it's placing my guy in good company and in the kind of smart company he'd like to keep. Morse, though, obeys the rules; Cinq-Mars, not so much. In concept, I wanted a guy with a keen moral compass in a world where that compass is usually absent or ignored by everyone; I wanted a guy who tries to disengage from the violence of his job and values a simple home life and philosophical pursuits; and I wanted a guy who would be in constant conflict with the bureaucrats, who wants to do things his way, right or wrong, and is constantly being hampered by those who demand that everything be done the corporate way.
The way you describe Cinq-Mars -- a figure "in constant conflict with the bureaucrats, who wants to do things his way, right or wrong" -- makes him sound not so different from the classic outsider detective of modern fiction. Do you think that every fictional detective needs a bit of the rebel or the outsider in him/her to attract a following?
Attracting a following is not the issue. Will my character attract a following? I don't know. What counts is whether or not he'll instigate interest on the page. Dexter's Morse, for instance, would never have done things his way, right or wrong, as he keenly believed in staying within the legal bounds. Morse would be appalled by Cinq-Mars. But he found other ways to assert himself. The victory for these characters, when they are victorious, is not simply a victory for justice over injustice, or right over wrong, although those matters can be included, but it is a good person's victory over an evil adversary, and there lies the engagement that we enjoy as readers. A good person, however, has a healthy liability: victory will ultimately mean victory over himself, or herself, as well.
I understand that Émile Cinq-Mars is based on a real-life Montreal detective of the 1960s, Jacques Cinq-Mars. Did you only borrow the name, or are there other comparisons to be made between these fictional and factual cops?
I borrowed the surname as a homage to the original Cinq-Mars. After he retired, the police force was reorganized so that someone like him could never come along again. After him, the bureaucrats would rule, no more folkloric cops loved by the media, cops who planned and executed amazing and dramatic strikes against the mobsters. My guy would resuscitate not only the name but that sense of style, that sense of action, that close-to-the-streets and independent style of cop who manages to stymie his superiors through the scope of his intelligence. But it's always a battle.
Why did you choose to give your man Cinq-Mars an Anglo partner, Mathers? What does that pairing add to your stories?
The English-French dichotomy is a facet of Montreal life and by bringing it right into the squad car and the office area, I'm able to explore a relationship that must cross a cultural divide. This lends a richness and allows one character to challenge the other and be frustrated by the other at the same time that each has much to learn from the other. It also allows an alternative perspective to enter the interchange, which can be deployed while solving crimes.
What did you want to accomplish with Ice Lake? Were you intent mostly on highlighting Montreal's role as a major drug research center and today's fierce competition between pharmaceutical companies, or is there still more to be read into the background of this tale?
I think the choice of the pharmaceutical industry is a natural for a Montreal writer, but the issues discussed go beyond what's local. It's a phenomena of our times that medical research had become a giant industry. Physicians all across the U.S., for example, will enroll their patients in experimental treatment programs, not because it's the best medical alternative but because the physician is paid a fee to deliver a patient who suits a particular profile. Very little of this is being discussed. Health as big business: when and how did this happen and what are the social and ethical consequences of this development? The book looks at an extreme situation, but the overall situation serves well as a backdrop.
As you wrote about nefarious behavior in today's pharmaceutical industry, were you relying mostly on imagination, or were you basing your story on real-life incidents? In other words, how much of your fiction was fiction?
My fiction is fiction. I believe in fiction. But fiction must always be rooted, for me, in the world it describes and envisions. Unethical drug companies are as obvious now as unethical cigarette companies. People want product and they want it on the market at all costs. Nothing new in that. When the novel was beginning to germinate, an American lawyer was arrested for being in possession of a Canadian drug company's stock certificates. He was accused of accepting criminal gain for his payment. That same drug company, coincidentally, was subject to a bombing, which turned out to be part of a plot to manipulate the stock price -- to make it fall -- so that the stock could be purchased cheaply. These events helped turn my attention to the industry. I observed the obvious: biotech is the next big growth industry of the coming times and that will lead to money being placed ahead of health and stock prices being considered ahead of the public good. Guaranteed.
Your Cinq-Mars novels are certainly morality tales, but did you also intend them to be social commentary cloaked within edge-of-the-seat dramas?
Well, it works both ways. The social commentary gives the drama an edge and places human moral forces in conflict. There is heightened drama to a story where good is pitted against evil and to get at that in modern times, you have to look at the choices people are making and why. It's just good storytelling to do both. The social issues are given a platform that's engaged and possibly exciting and the drama is given added purpose and dimension.
I was particularly pleased with the mortality of Cinq-Mars' father in Ice Lake. It served as a reminder to the detective that he can't save everyone, no matter how much he tries. Should I presume this was by design?
The father's death is meant to bring the pharmaceutical industry into focus. I'm not trying to paint the industry as evil, only as one that is in conflict with itself. Cinq-Mars will rely upon miracle pills to help him with his arthritis, for instance, and he certainly will rely upon medical science to relieve his father of his suffering as much as is possible. There's also the notion that death is part of life, it's part of the human drama and part of the fabric of living when it comes naturally and in its own time. That people die in Ice Lake is not the issue; that they die horribly and as the result of malfeasance is the issue. These men are denied their natural deaths and that's the tragedy, that they had to die in unnatural ways. The death of the senior Cinq-Mars brings home the fact that we will all die, that death doesn't need any help, that those who work on the side of death are outside the quiet and impressive and everyday human story in which we all share.
How far do you think you can take the Cinq-Mars series? Are you already working on installments three and four?
Installment three is in the mental works. I'm looking at specific issues in the police departments here and I've taken note that Mideast terrorists cells who had hoped to do damage in the U.S. used Montreal as their launching pad. But we shall see. How far can I take this? I don't see a bottom or a top or any serious impediments. (The recent arrest of more than 100 Hell's Angels does give me pause, however. Maybe the cops will put me out of business. ... Naw.) It will all depend on my own zeal for the project, which remains very strong.
I asked this of author Peter Robinson some time back and now I'll ask it of you now: Why do Canadian crime novels seem to be largely overlooked internationally? And who among today's Canadian authors in this genre do you think deserves recognition?
Being overlooked as Canadians is common to our literature. We've come along in recent years, though. My British publisher told me that a dozen years ago she would not even have looked at a Canadian book, because she had enough strong entries from the UK and the U.S. She no longer has as many impressive entries from those countries and perhaps that's the real puzzle. In any case, Canadian writers can fill that void, be it in crime or literary fiction. I still think Canadian writers are a little slow in answering the call to crime fiction, they feel a taint. Perhaps my success can help there. Peter Robinson is a fine writer, as was L.R. (Bunny) Wright, recently deceased.
Are there other contemporary crime novelists -- not just Canadians -- whose work you especially admire? And what does it take for a book in this genre to attract your attention?
Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, was a novel I much admired, for its convincing portrayal of a time and a place. And I have always wanted my genre fiction to seek the high ground that John Le Carré established in his spy fiction. To get at that in crime fiction -- men struggling within the system in which they operate, trying to do what's right, but conflicted -- is a worthy endeavor. James Lee Burke, for his writing skill and in particular for the achievement of character and place found in Black Cherry Blues, is a favorite. I'm also enjoying Michael Connelly.
Do you still dream of going back to work on more literary fiction, or are you now settled into life as "John Farrow," thriller writer?
I'm writing a Trevor Ferguson novel now. I'll probably do a John Farrow after it's done. The literary books exhaust me in different ways than the crime books, so by flipping back and forth I should be able to do what I love to do -- write -- all the time. The success of John Farrow in international markets has certainly opened up my reputation to foreign publishers. My old literary books are now doing well in France, for instance, and in most countries where Farrow has been introduced publishers are interested in my next literary work. That includes the U.S. So I do not expect to publish my next literary novel into a vacuum. You might say that Trevor Ferguson grew tired of knocking on the doors. John Farrow came along and kicked the doors down and now Trevor Ferguson is free to walk in behind him. | August 2001
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.