A grieving former cop who took early retirement when his wife Liz took sick (she eventually succumbed to alcoholism), JOHN SWAN is a welcome blast of darkness in the squeaky white winter wonderland of Canadian crime fiction. It's all here: the seedy locales, the bleak lives lived in sometimes not-so-quiet desparation and the tawdry little reasons that people live and die, all fuelled by busted promises and broken dreams, all acted out against a finely-etched backdrop of the hard, cold steeltown of Hamilton, Ontario, A.K.A. "the nation's toughest town" or simply "The Hammer." And there are great sojourns to the Niagara Peninsula, Toronto, and even occasional journeys across the border to Buffalo, New York.
Swan's world seems to consist almost entirely of bars, race tracks, and seedy strip joints, and public washrooms which, for some reason, seem to be a favourite setting for murder. This world is populated by sleazy Bible thumpers, cowardly stool pigeons, shysters, hustlers, petty thugs, professional wrestlers, snotty academics, camera-sucking politicians, and overweight single moms, all just trying to survive.
Not that Swan's some Dudley Do-Right, himself. To tell the truth, he's a bit of an asshole, a surly overweight slob who drinks, and tends to shoot his mouth off too much, all the while trying to pull himself out of the depression and alcohol that is slowly pulling him under. And he doesn't exactly have a lot of friends, either on or off the police force. He's not even completely reliable as a narrator, admitting he's not sure of the sequence of events at times. He lives alone in his house, walking empty rooms looking for a reason to believe, or at least something to blame. He'd like to re-connect with his daughter Peggy, who lives in Ottawa, but they haven't really spoken since his wife died.
And then his half-brother Artie, now a successful lawyer (even if some of his clients are a little shady) calls him up, and throws him a bone, hoping to snap him out of his depression. Artie asks him to look into the murder of a wealthy client's son, in the men's room (where else?) of a notorious dive, and we're off in a string of loosely connected episodes that comprise The Rouge Murders (each of the five parts has a type of red in the title).
It's a great read, literate and smart, sharp and unflinching. There's great, local colour, and a disjointed but dead-on narrative voice at work here, that almost reeks of the cheap Scotch that Swan prefers. And yet, as bleak as it sounds, there's also great warmth and humanity, and even moments of heart-breaking tenderness in this book.
The Rouge Murders was one of the best books I've read in a while, made all the more appealling by the fact Swan's world is so familiar. I've been to many of the places he's been, and I can assure you that Swan nails them to the wall. This is good stuff, highly recommended. And Swan returned (finally) in Sap, a novel-length case, in 2004.
John Swan, the character, is the creation of John Swan, the writer. According to his web site, Murder Out There:
But, in fact, John Swan, the writer, was actually Kerry J. Schooley, a Hamilton writer and poet, and a great friend to this site and its little web monkey. He was a tireless supporter of Canadian crime fiction and in particular the local Hamilton arts scene, running fundraisers for local theatres and writing groups. He organized a very popular series "Noir Nights" in Hamilton, edited and maintained a great crime fiction web site, Murder Out There, and along with fellow Canadian crime writer Peter Sellers, edited three pivotal collections of Canadian noir, including Iced. He was a big fan of good food, good drink, good music and Montreal, one hell of a storyteller and a good friend.
I'm gonna miss the big lug.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. See ya around, Kerry. Hold a spot at the bar for me.
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