City of Ice

by John Farrow

Published by Random House

480 pages, 1999






"Ice" Needs More Heat

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith


On the stand-up comedy circuit of crime fiction, Montreal has always been a hard room to play. A peculiar city -- messy and passionate, not quite English and not quite French, not quite North American and not quite European. Curiously distinct, as well, from other Canadian cities -- it has always seemed a strange mix of cultures and attitudes, suffering (or perhaps benefiting) from an innate case, not just of schizophrenia, but full-tilt multiple-personality disorder. Even the weather swings from one extreme to another, from bone-chilling cold in winter to the steaming heat of summer. Outsiders don't always know quite what to make of it. Hell, people who live here, myself included, often don't either. Add a long, colorful history of crime (Raymond Chandler once compared Montreal to Los Angeles, observing it was "almost as crooked as we are"), and the city should be fertile ground for crime fiction.

Yet, surprisingly, only a handful of decent crime novels have been set in Montreal over the years, and few have drawn much attention, either critically or commercially. Most noteworthy is probably Trevanian's The Main, and that was published way back in 1976. Lately, though, there has there been a glut of crime fiction set in my hometown, from the literary young-man blues of Byron Kempel's True Detective, to Kathy Reichs' Cornwell-wannabe tales of a plucky female forensic scientist (Déjà Dead and Death Du Jour), to Liza Appignanesi's The Dead of Winter, which deals in part with the 1989 Montreal Massacre.

Now along comes John Farrow's City of Ice, a big chunk of a thriller that's already gathering a lot of attention. And Hollywood's come sniffing around, too.

Local boy Farrow knows his turf, and delights in building up his story, based on real-life (and on-going) events. It's December as the book begins, cold as hell, and Montreal is being rocked by a bloody turf war. Two rival biker gangs, the Hell's Angels and the Rock Machine, go at each other with dynamite, guns, and chainsaws, each side vying for control of the lucrative Montreal narcotics trade. And that isn't the only territorial pissing contest going on, as local, provincial, national, and international factors, on various sides of the law, squabble over their piece of the pie. The CIA, renegade former members of the KGB, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Wolverines (an elite police task force formed to combat the gangs), and the Mafia have their own agendas to play out, and nobody seems overly concerned about who gets caught in the middle.

One person who actually did get tragically caught up in it all was Daniel Desrochers, a real-life, 11-year-old boy, who was killed when the car he was walking by blew up, back in 1995. His death is woven into Farrow's story; and, in fact, City of Ice is dedicated to his memory.

The lines between reality and fiction become even more blurred as dark, moody, vaguely self-righteous Detective-Sergeant Emile Cinq-Mars of the Montreal Urban Community Police Force, a career cop with a big reputation and a few even bigger chips on his shoulder, wades into this unholy mess. Cinq-Mars is a loner, suspicious of other officers, the police bureaucracy, and even his new partner. After all, not only is rookie Bill Mathers annoyingly young, but he's English, something Cinq-Mars ruefully admits bothers him. (Unlike some recent overly earnest examples in fiction, Farrow deftly handles Montreal's constant English/French tensions.) And although he's a local hero, Cinq-Mars' fellow officers don't always hold him in high esteem: one of them snidely refers to the devoutly Catholic detective-sergeant as "the Priest," with no small amount of contempt. Cinq-Mars also has a secret: His reputation is partially a sham. He owes much of his impressive arrest record over the years to a string of tips from a mysterious and anonymous source.

City of Ice kicks off with a bang, as Cinq-Mars witnesses the car owned by a Hell's Angel bigshot being blown to pieces, with its owner still inside. Then it fast-forwards a few months to the night before Christmas, and the discovery of a young man dressed as Santa Claus, left murdered and hanging from a meat hook in a closet -- an early Christmas present for Cinq-Mars, who recognizes the dead man as one of his former snitches. The reader is left to make the connections, as the story jump cuts from scene to scene, and the complex plot unfolds. The biker wars escalate, with plot twists involving everything from a disgraced banker living in a train tunnel to one woman's gynecological peculiarities (recalling Mario Puzo's The Godfather). More car bombs, shoot-outs, corruption, betrayal, and treachery from unexpected quarters are all trotted out, and finally, Cinq-Mars must confront some painful truths -- not just about the criminals he's pitted against, or his colleagues, or even some of his closest friends, but himself.

It's a great story. A sly, intelligent work, that can rightfully be compared with other wintry thrillers such as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow. Its powerful scenes just beg for big-screen treatment. But where's the juice, where's the passion?

Where's the punch line?

City of Ice is ambitious, but it's also overly long, and Cinq-Mars is never as developed as one might hope. He's a potentially great character, but he remains curiously enigmatic. There's a fine scene midway through the book in which he's grooming his horses which reminds me of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux hosing down his beloved fishing dock. The scene hints at hidden depths to Cinq-Mars' personality. But alas, it only hints. It lacks the emotional pull that Burke evokes, and what could have been a potent scene rings curiously hollow.

Most of the book's other characters are quickly sketched in, with others hardly there at all. Even Cinq-Mars' wife is barely more than a hint of a person. Farrow has set up the story well, but his characters lack that distinctive oomph that brings them truly alive.

Having chosen such an ambiguous city as his setting, it is only appropriate that author Farrow should also have a double life. He's actually Trevor Ferguson, a "respected Canadian writer of literary fiction," as his American publisher puts it, and City of Ice is his first stab at genre fiction. His cover, of course, was blown almost immediately in Canada, where his literary novels Onyx John, The True-Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater, and The Timekeeper, among others, have met with much critical acclaim.

Not that he's slumming. Ferguson has made a point of stating that. Over and over again. His use of a pen name has more to do with the harsh, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? realities of publishing than any real attempt to hide his identity. But another point, almost as disturbing, arises: He may not be slumming, but there's a conceit here, perhaps, that anyone who can write a boffo literary work will find it child's play to crank out a thriller. It ain't.

A thriller, above all, should be thrilling. It can be literate, provocative, challenging, insightful, and might even change the world as we know it. All those good things. But it also has to thrill. City of Ice is exciting enough, but because we never really get to know the characters, we remain distanced from the action.

"Only where love and need are one/And the work is done for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done," as poet Robert Frost once wrote. Unfortunately, Farrow seems to have been too worried about not writing down to his audience. Instead, he has kept to the high road, not risking the low road of pulpish thrills and easy emotion, and the stakes never become quite mortal enough. But there's no shame in creating characters that come alive. Farrow's not too hip for the room; the room has become too hip for him. His approach lacks the juice of passion, and so what could have been a major work comes off as oddly muted and rather dry. A more robust approach, and possibly 50 or so fewer pages, would have done wonders.

Don't get me wrong. I really liked City of Ice, and it contains passages of real power. Ferguson/Farrow has taken on a lot here, and to his credit, he hasn't backed down. His material is good, but he needs to work on his act, hone his chops. A second novel featuring Cinq-Mars is already in the works. I hope that, on the next go-round, Farrow will learn to work the room better. | June 1999


Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently lurking around the Los Angeles area, defying Chandler's red wind and trying to get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.