Although there is no shortage of women authors whose protagonists are male, the reverse is seldom true. The Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin once told me that it was
difficult for male writers to write convincingly from a woman’s perspective. We
discussed why that was, and decided, somewhat disturbingly, that in many cases
men simply weren’t as perceptive as women. We moved on from that dark thought,
and let the issue drop.
But it looks as though in at
least one case, we were wrong. After an almost 10-year hiatus from writing
crime fiction, Canadian author John Lawrence Reynolds has turned out a new
novel, Beach Strip (HarperCollins
Canada), and it’s a winner. It features a woman as protagonist — and
it’s told from a first-person point of view. For good measure it contains not
one, but two finely etched portraits of sisters, very different women, each
Gabe Marshall is a police detective, and after he and wife Josie have each put
failed previous marriages behind them, they are trying to carve out a measure
of happiness in a modest beach cottage on the shore of Lake Ontario that serves
as their refuge from a troubled world. Or they were, until one horrible evening
when Josie returns home to find officers swarming over the site, marking off a
grassy section of the beach with yellow tape, and inside that Stygian
landscape, Gabe Marshall lying among the grass with a bullet in his brain.
His death seems clearly a suicide, and Josie’s immediate thought is that somehow Gabe discovered that she was having an affair with one of his fellow officers. When her sister from Vancouver, British Columbia, descends on Josie to help, she notices an expensive ring that Gabe had recently given Josie. It’s way
beyond what a policeman could plausibly afford. Josie is evasive, uncertain how
Gabe had acquired it. Unspoken between these sisters is the question: Had Gabe been on
the take, and was the ring somehow implicated in his death?
Despite questions from the investigating officers and a media scrum that lays waste to her privacy, Josie somehow makes it through the next few days. When the bullet that killed Gabe is traced to his own gun, and paraffin tests reveal that he
fired the weapon, Josie still denies that it was suicide.
Refusing a departmental ceremony, she has Gabe’s remains cremated, and then takes his ashes past a nearby drawbridge to a canal, intending to return them to the
natural environment they both loved. She hears a man’s voice telling her he
knows what happened, but the drawbridge horn sounds, warning that the bridge is
about to be raised; it almost knocks her over with its force, and causes her to
drop the box containing Gabe’s remains. When she recovers, the man who
spoke to her is nowhere to be found. She runs home to regain her bearings, and
only later returns to recover the box of ashes. But she finds more than she
expects: the body of a man at the foot of the canal, his head crushed by the
bridge’s massive concrete counterweight. Is this a macabre accident, or did the
man really have something to tell Josie about her husband’s death?
Before her quest is over, Josie will fight a police department that has made up its mind about Gabe’s death, and be forced to enter the shadowy world of his work. While
getting to the bottom of things she will grapple with a druggie who shows up
at her front door and a prowler in her backyard, and she will confront a local
crime boss who is either her worst enemy or a valued friend. And in the
process, Josie Marshall will learn that betrayal takes many forms, sometimes
that of the person closest to you.
Author Reynolds is a seasoned professional, and it
shows. A former president of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a two-time winner
of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel, he has half a dozen crime novels
under his belt. Beach Strip is an engrossing tale, with a strong sense
of place and characters that are both believable and engaging. Nicely paced,
with several twists and a story line that will hold the reader’s attention, it
marks the welcome return of an accomplished writer to Canadian crime fiction.
Let’s hope there are many more of Reynolds’ books in the offing. ◊
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.