Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In the dark no more

Opening the cover on Manitoba's bestselling author

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Who is Manitoba's No. 1 bestselling author?

David Bergen? Miriam Toews?

Nope. Toni Anderson.

Never heard of her? Not surprising, but now you have. Very few know she's here. Now you do.

What's she write? Romance mystery. Or mystery romance. Or romantic suspense. Like that. And in her sub-genre, routinely dismissed by the toffee-nosed literati, Anderson is an honest-to-bra-strap star.

Who is she? Shropshire-born, in her 40s, trained as a marine biologist, lived in six countries and calls Fort Garry home. Her new novel, Dark Waters (Montlake, 268 pages, $14), out for just a few weeks, is already ranking high in both e-book and print editions at Amazon stores in Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

What's it about? Well, that would be Anna, whose ex-con dad gets himself run over by a Chicago subway train while trying to get to the local Feebs to blow the whistle on a charity that's laundering mercenary-gig money. Lots of money.

But dad calls Anna before his "assisted" demise, telling her he's grabbed the dough and mailed her the account info. And he tells her to run to the only guy he trusts, his prison roomie Brent Carver, who ended up in the slammer for killing his abusive father, but is now a wealthy, reclusive artist on parole.

Anna takes her papa's advice, shows up at Brent's remote Vancouver Island cabin/mansion, and... well, sparks fly as the duo jet all over the place, pursued by the evil ex-military mercenary types who want their 60-mil back. No bodices get ripped (actually, they do, though it's the bad guy who does the shredding), but there are a lot of overheated naughty bits throughout.

OK, so it's hardly Thoreau.

But get this: Anderson's prose is assured, workmanlike and smooth-flowing, the plot is mostly predictable but boasts a few decent twists, and you actually get to know her hot-to-the-touch hero and damaged-but-smouldering heroine pretty well. Especially their, ahem, physical attributes.

In other words, Dark Waters is as good or better than about three-quarters of the new fiction offerings out there. In fact, knock out the passionate, but not terribly visceral sex scenes, and you have a pretty solid chase thriller.

Toni Anderson. Winnipegger. Who knew?

-- -- --

A small-town teen, high on Ecstasy, falls to his death from a furniture-store roof. His angry, guilt-ridden father, a local PI, is so obsessed with his son's death he interrogates local kids and threatens anyone who may have supplied the drugs. And his marriage is on the rocks, with his heartbroken wife drawing their son's portrait over and over, trying to create the perfect memory.

Yet this same PI drops all of that and becomes -- in minutes -- even more obsessed with the well-being of a teenage girl he doesn't know and has no reason to believe is in danger, on the basis of a seemingly harmless prank.

That's the credulity-challenged premise behind A Tap on the Window (Doubleday, 512 pages, $23), the latest bestseller by Toronto shooting-star Linwood Barclay. And, as with all his previous head-scratchers, it goes downhill from there, piling dubious coincidence upon puzzling behaviour upon fatuous scenario to its seat-of-the-pants conclusion.

It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction. Not on Barclay's planet. An old man who's supposed to have gone over Niagara Falls in a boat has really been held captive in his basement for seven years by his wife and stepson, who's also a psycho cop? Sure.

The town's mayor, a solemn academic but known philanderer, does a fatally stupid thing -- in front of a witness -- out of fear one of his many trysts will be exposed? And almost gets away with it? Why not? In Barclay's what-if world, it's all perfectly reasonable.

Now, a fantastical storyline, even one held together with duct-tape and baling wire, might be swallowed if leavened by some thematic depth or character insight or even, for some, page-turning action. But with a boilerplate cast wrapped around a laborious, paint-by-numbers investigation with no discernible point beyond reader manipulation, even these life-preservers are absent. While murder is afoot, Barclay is just the undertaker who doesn't dig very deep.

The real mystery here is why Barclay's pedestrian thrillers have reaped such glowing domestic accolades. After all, this favourite son, domiciled in Oakville, Ont., sets all his books in small-town U.S.A., though there's nothing that would obviate Canadian settings -- lots of small towns and every-persons here. But then there'd be far less appeal to American readers (and publishers), and that's where the big money and movie deals come from.

Perhaps, despite decades of cultural pretension, we still need American approval of our literary worth to make it real. Or, as with A Tap on the Window, to make water into wine.

-- -- --

Children of the Revolution, by Peter Robinson (McClelland & Stewart, 400 pages, $30): You'll know exactly why English coppers are called "plods" after sampling this snoozer, the 21st detective-chief-inspector Banks instalment by Yorkshire-born, Toronto-based veteran Peter Robinson.

Forgetting that the story should actually be interesting, Robinson is simply on autopilot here, meticulously recording every interview, phone call, computer check, pub lunch and curry takeout by Banks and his familiar team of Annie Cabbot and Winsome Jackman as they probe the death of a Yorkshire college teacher fired for sexual misconduct.

Then there's the entirely fanciful resolution and the lack of even a scintilla of character development -- except for maybe the dead guy. Banks himself remains largely a cipher -- a bland, divorced, not-too-bright music/booze lover who lives in a nice cottage, and... not much else.

Despite its belated TV run on BBC and PBS, the Banks series has gone waaaay beyond its best-before date, an also-ran in the Brit-crime firmament.

-- -- --

RECOMMENDED

Bad Blood, by Arne Dahl (Pantheon, 352 pages, $30): Written in 1998 and first published in Sweden in 2003, it's puzzling why this harrowing and character-rich literary thriller took so long to make it into English release.

The sequel to Dahl's debut, Mysterioso, finds detective Paul Hjelm and his special police unit tracking a nasty American serial killer who's brought his grisly handiwork to Sweden. But Dahl's poetic style infuses the graphically horrific with droll humour, satirical observation and bracing social commentary, all through the top-to-bottom authenticity of his cast.

On the strength of his two beautifully translated novels, Dahl has established himself as a Euro-crime star. We shouldn't have to wait so long for the third.

-- -- --

Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt, 304 pages, $30): Quirke, the '50s-era Dublin pathologist created by the crime-writing alter-ego of Booker Prize winner John Banville, is aptly named. And this latest in the series is quirkier than usual, less a mystery than a revelatory portrait of his melancholy, alcoholic and tragic protagonist finally emerging from the trauma of child abuse.

So, there's less Black and more Banville in this bleak (and now globally resonant) tale of priestly sin and Church cover-up wrapped around the murder of a snoopy journalist, a friend of Quirke's conflicted daughter, Phoebe. Justice is done, at least what passes for it in oppressive postwar Ireland, but it's the author's fine stylistic treatment of wrenching personal revelation that makes this one memorable.

-- -- --

Never Go Back, by Lee Child (Delacorte, 416 pages, $30): If you're still appalled Hollywood cast aging, height-challenged pretty boy Tom Cruise as scarred and towering ex-marine Jack Reacher, here's some compensation.

This one is pure Reacher, as the wandering street-fighter teams up with his comely military-cop successor to beat trumped-up charges and thwart a high-level smuggling operation.

It's Reacher on the run from all manner of cops and thugs alike, meting out wisecracking justice the American way. What more could you ask?

Associate Editor John Sullivan runs the Free Press Autos, Homes and Travel sections and specialty websites.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 A1

History

Updated on Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 7:17 AM CDT: Replace photo

9:05 AM: corrects typo

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