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Breakout mystery novel best Canadian release of year

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The Finger's Twist

By Lee Lamothe

Turnstone Press, 256 pages, $16

What in the world has befallen our whodunit heavyhitters this year? Is there some kind of literary swine flu out there?

Recent fare from Michael Connolly, Kathy Reichs, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Dean Koontz, Harlen Coben and Walter Mosley have all been mediocre exercises in treading water at best, silly cinematic beach-fare at worst. The James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell book machines? Well, you can’t be disappointed anymore with stuff that bad.

Even Jeffery Deaver faltered with The Broken Window, and Janet Evanovich’s never-ending Stephanie Plum series is finally stale-dated with Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. Only Greg Iles (The Devil’s Punchbowl), James Lee Burke (Rain Gods) and John Connolly (The Reapers) have held their own, and few beyond Karen Rose (I Can See You) and Christopher Ransom (The Birthing House) have surprised.

The list goes on and on. Not a single chart-topper in the most-embraced genre of popular literature has produced a superior novel in the last year. Have the North Americans ceded the mystery mantle to the more complex, character-driven Brits and morose Europeans?

Enter Lee Lamothe.

Never heard of him? Maybe not, unless you’re a true-crime fan and have come across his several Mafia tracts, most recently The Sixth Family: The Collapse of the New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto.

Well, this Toronto journalist, in only his second swing at the fiction bat after 2003’s The Last Thief, has knocked one out of the Rogers Centre. In The Finger’s Twist, he’s penned not only the best Canadian mystery/suspense release of the year, but a yarn light-years beyond anything the American stars have produced.

It’s simply the breakout novel in a Canadian setting that some much-feted darlings of Eastern media — Giles Blunt, Linwood Barclay, John McFetridge, Louise Petty, among others — have been trying to write but haven’t quite managed, eclipsing even rising-star turns by Robert Rotenberg (Old City Hall), David Hugelschaffer (One Careless Moment) and Ross Pennie (Tainted).

And it’s only in paperback, produced by Winnipeg’s own Turnstone Press under its Ravenstone imprint.

To its credit, Finger is not really a ‘Toronto novel’ at all. A few familiar Toronto streets and locations are cited, but the references are refreshingly unselfconscious, with none of the wince-inducing name-drops or studied "See, it’s Toronto!" parochialism to which others have resorted. Shorn of these occasional signposts, it could be L.A., New York, anywhere.

The near-future setting is a more rebellious time, a rising anarchist tide spurring frequent and varied social-justice riots at Queen’s Park that have drawn Charlie Tate’s daughters, Emma (the Mouse) and Allie, as frequent participants and police-clash victims.

Charlie is a "busted boy", his 10-year companion Elodie Gray a "broken doll". Their upscale condo, courtesy of Elodie’s family money, is accessible to both the handicapped and the drunk — "one of us was one, one of us was both." Still, they could not be more dissimilar.

Charlie Tate is, at least sometimes, a "rags-and-bones man" like his father — a garbage-picker, a fixer. In his teens a globetrotting tramp, carnie, sailor, short-order cook, bouncer, hired muscle, sparring partner, in his late 30s he’s now a shaved-head Harley rider, sometimes-journalist, gourmet cook, amateur photographer and part-time bodyguard.

From the first lengthy paragraph of the prelude, describing his father and fractured youth, you know you’re on a special ride with Charlie:

"After lifting the fridge — or stove or chesterfield or old porcelain toilet — he could wrestle it smoothly onto the bed of the truck or onto the cart like a skinny man dancing a jitterbug with a fat lady, finding her point of balance and just rolling her off her feet, across his back, and onto the danceboards as though it was nothing at all."

By the by, his father also may have killed Charlie’s philandering mother, "and made her parts vanish". Fleeing to Florida, killed in a fishing accident, he leaves Charlie — dubbed "garbage boy" by other kids — to fight his way through life.

Elodie is a smart, scrappy, irreverent alcoholic, a 75-pound "bone rack" left regally paraplegic by a booze-soaked crash that killed her parents, her fault. Born to wealth and still sustained by it, she’s pinned between the expanse of privilege and the strictures of wheelchair and guilt.

Charlie and Elodie are unlicensed PIs who take corporate "research engagements", vetting prospective business partners and tracking down white-collar thieves with computer data-mining work by Elodie and shoe-leather surveillance and record checks by Charlie. Their other "revenue stream" is fixing problems, requiring dodgier methods (mostly Charlie’s forte).

The odd couple gets marginally involved when the grand-daughter of a wealthy couple, friends of Elodie’s blue-chip family, is arrested for trying to plant a homemade bomb at the legislature. But the slam-dunk case mysteriously collapses, the wayward princess allowed to shelter in a European psych palace.

Fast-forward a year later, with massive police raids on an alleged terrorist cell plotting bombings and assassinations, and Charlie’s daughters tagged as ringleaders. Now, Charlie and Elodie need to decipher the oblique hieroglyphs of police and political corruption to get the Mouse and Allie off the hook, without getting themselves killed or jailed by the slugs they uncover.

It’s a tale of blackmail, feint and counter-feint, told unsentimentally in tight, muscular and evocative prose with an addictive pace and flow. Dialogue is realistic and unlaboured, variously (and often simultaneously) funny, revealing and scrappy, without playing to the cheap seats. Equally impressive, background is served up often but effortlessly and inconspicuously, with no jarring transitions.

Vignettes and side-stories abound, but are seamlessly woven into the narrative. The secondary cast is nuanced and colourful — not only the radically thoughtful Allie and fleet, fearless Mouse (who "owned the ground she stood upon"), but Charlie’s disillusioned detective pal, his reporter and mob-boss allies, Elodie’s rarified family and their circle of disinterested "swells", Big Chu the police chief, "PR Babe" Magda the K, ditzy verbally challenged Mayor Buddy, and a raft of other memorable folk.

Genre-busting in the extreme, The Finger's Twist is a love story, a character study, a wheel-within-wheels whodunit, a social commentary, a political treatise (though nowhere a drum-beating polemic) and a police procedural (the title refers to a signature bomb-making technique that’s key to the resolution).

But, beyond that, it’s bang-up storytelling, a compulsive, read-it-over-dinner, take-it-to-the bathroom cure for what ails ya. No higher praise possible, except maybe this: Once finished, you may be tempted to read it again. Indulge.

Lamothe is a flash-nova in a mystery/suspense firmament of increasingly bloated egos and inferior made-for-TV product. And Winnipeg’s Turnstone has a gold-plated winner.

John Sullivan is Free Press mystery columnist and editor of the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2009 H9

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