Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Small-Town City

by special guest Janice MacDonald.

This book is a strange wee beast, a combination of my first foray into writing mysteries and my latest, seventh puzzle with my amateur detective, Randy Craig, MA. The impetus was to bring that first, long unattainable adventure back into readers’ hands while at the same time giving them the heft and style of the series they had come to know. So, in the magical worlds of the mysterious, one plus seven equals six!

Sliding back into the world of The Next Margaret, that very first mystery, has hauled up a fair amount of nostalgia for me. Like Randy, I was back at university, doing an MA, after being out in the freelance world for four or five years. I was already living in the sweet apartment she later moved to within a cinnamon bun’s toss of the Highlevel Diner, but I made her suffer through the basement suite I had lived in during my second year of undergrad. Having researched and written a thesis on detective fiction for my MA, I figured I would try my hand at creating a reluctant amateur in the farceur style with the closed world of grad studies and TA-ing and sessional lecturing not as familiar to mystery readers already well versed in the academic novels of full professors and Oxford dons. In fact, one reviewer remarked that, “Randy Craig mysteries were like Amanda Cross for the untenured set.”

More than the puzzle, more than the charismatic detective, more than the grit or the laughs or the meanness of the streets depicted, what matters in a detective series is the location. In a formulaic genre, the bones of the book are already known, so it’s not that they’re reading for stunning plot structure. And while they need to identify with the detective and befriend him or her, they don’t necessarily want too much change in personality. So what it comes down to is that people read mysteries for an entry into a world with which they are not intimately familiar – and mystery novels take them to New Mexico, or Norway, or Watts in the late ‘50s, or post-Crimea War London. I thought, why not Edmonton?

The beauty of setting a novel here was that, up on the 53rd parallel, we were the most northerly major university city, with all the amenities of a large metropolis, yet a small town feel. We had a vibrant arts scene, a symphony, an opera company, amazing theatre, festivals galore, loads of intellectually stimulating people, grassroots blue collar grit, a glorious river valley and an ominous black bridge spanning half a mile. Running through the ravine system were deer, coyotes, the odd moose, cougars, even a bear was spotted the other day in Emily Murphy Park. And amazing as it seemed, relatively few people had ever heard of us.

They might have heard of us if they followed hockey, or if they were British and of a certain age, since all their sisters seemed to end up as Princess Patricia war brides. But they didn’t tend to read about us. We popped up from time to time in a quick chapter of a Dick Francis novel, a glancing reference in a Jeopardy question, a garrulous condemnation in Mordecai Richler magazine piece. The world was ready for Edmonton, and most particularly southside, campussy Edmonton. They would be lining up for Randy Craig Mysteries.

I quite honestly figured it would be a cakewalk. I would write a mystery series featuring a funny, mouthy brunette, set her in various milieus connected to the University of Alberta, and let her bring Edmonton to the world. After all, mystery readers crave new series. I know I do; I count myself right up there with obsessive readers the world over.

And the series does sell relatively well in Edmonton where people are sort of bemused to find their real street names in fiction. They sell even better all across North America now that people can buy them easily on e-readers. Adjunct lecturers love Randy, and so do librarians. And while there has been no British distribution deal, or TV producers with wheelbarrows full of cash so far, recognition does grow with every new adventure. Hudson’s Bay Company cartographer Peter Pond put Edmonton on the map. Randy Craig is satisfied with just sticking a small pin in it.

Still, with every new book comes more awareness, and even as I look back over thirty-seven years of writing and twenty-two years of Randy Craig in print, I am looking forward, as well, to think about what she might be getting up to as she moves firmly into middle-age. Not sure what number we’ll get to, she and I. But whatever happens, you just know that things won’t add up.

Janice MacDonald is the author of eleven books, including novels, non-­fiction titles, and a children's book. She has been widely anthologized, and her popular Randy Craig novels were the first mystery series set in Edmonton. Janice has taught English literature, communications, and creative writing at both the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan College. She currently works for the the Government of Alberta. Born in Banff, Alberta, Janice lives and writes in Edmonton and considers herself to be a quintessential Albertan.

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