It all started in Montreal, unless it happened down the wild spine of the west. Or maybe, baby, in the days before, but that book has not yet been written. Diagnosis: genre contagion. Fascination with various shades of noir, and emulations thereof, are nothing new. Lugubrious and sexy, eminently quotable, noir has formulaic underpinnings that offer both cultural comfort and opportunities for subversion.
It’s easy to see why first-time novelist Fraser Nixon was drawn to the lawlessness of Montreal in the 1920s: The Man Who Killed pivots on the uncanny luck of down-on-his-luck Mick, who gets embroiled in an old friend’s bootlegging racket. The love of his life has ditched him for silverier spoons, and Mick has defaulted to love number two, one Emma of the opioids. Treachery, political imbroglios and well-paved roads to hell ensue.
Nixon gets to be louche with impunity, putting lines like “savvy” and “live free or die” into his characters’ mouths with only the irony of retrospect. There’s Houdini, and the King-Byng, and boozejackings, unfolding through a most inviting narrative haze. The novel remains artificial, a guilty, playful treat, but Nixon has well-tuned comic ear and generic stamina, and The Man Who Killed is enough to make us look forward to his next.
Riding this same wave are stylistic imitations like Michael Boyce’s foundering private-eye shtick in Anderson, and bona fides such as Véhicule’s reprints of unearthed fifties pulp, which so far include Montreal Confidential, The Crime on Cote des Neiges and Murder Over Dorval. They’re cheap, gritty, good reads, and they feel like home, triggering satirical pseudo-nostalgia for a time when our traffic was “practically snarled,” Saturday nights were for the déclassés, and Habs fans were rabid. Oh, Montreal.
This will come as no surprise given this city’s current scrupulosity, but the city was once known as the urban and urbane compeer of the debauched wild west; recent incarnations of toothsome indecency from both east and west offer timely escape into our best wishes for our worse selves.
Although Patrick DeWitt’s excellent The Sisters Brothers is somewhat extra-categorical—wrong geography, wrong century—this neo-Western plucks at the same romantic cynicism for swinging into a bar as gunslingers fling themselves under the furniture in fear, the gold rush, a small-town moll whose dreams are woven from single nights and shiny coins.
One steely and the other soft, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both crack shots, the best in their second-oldest profession in the world. It’s a story full of conventions—men whose survival relies entirely on the speed of their draw, a pair of brothers opposed by their morals and by their respective utopias, the succour of return to the maternal home… Yet the novel extends beyond pastiche because it conjures a world rather than unreeling celluloid. We get attached to Eli’s shitbox horse; we are floored by the discovery of toothpaste; we bite our nails not knowing whether the hidden money will still be there; we feel the complicated rush of a kill, our “center … beginning to expand, as it always did before violence.” Fully invested, DeWitt is a hilarious, wry wordsmith and a masterful storyteller. The Sisters Brothers, with its sharp edges and instinctive compassion, is far from historical displacement or genre escapism. It is art worthy of the status, regardless of context or -ism.
Anderson, by Michael Boyce, Pedlar Press
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, House of Anansi
The Crime on Cote des Neiges, by David Montrose, Véhicule Press
The Man Who Killed, by Fraser Nixon, Douglas & McIntyre
Murder Over Dorval, by David Montrose, Véhicule Press
Montreal Confidential, by Al Palmer, Véhicule Press
Writer, editor and translator Katia Grubisic is all about the mean streets of, um, Mile End. Never mind.