Thought You Were Dead

By Terry Griggs

Terry Griggs’s Thought You Were Dead is a book surcharged with creative energy, crammed with a fullness of invention that spills onto its endpapers and seems at times a threat to its binding.

It is, primarily, a parody of the traditional village mystery. The location is the southern Ontario town of Farclas, promoted by its boosters as “Friendly, Safe, Fun!!” The hero is Chellis Beith, personal researcher and fact-checker for an eccentric local novelist named Athena Havlock. His anachronistic line of work (Ms. Havlock does not, apparently, go online) makes him both a good amateur detective – he recognizes “God is in the details” – as well as a facile conversationalist whose head is always full of facts and factoids, and the difference between the two. His synapses fire so quickly his head sounds like a bug zapper, and almost everyone’s dialogue similarly sparks with zingers. Such nimble mental and verbal patter is native to noir, but not what you expect from your typical cozy.

Mystery and intrigue hit close to home when a book reviewer is murdered in a neighbouring town. “Who would want to kill a lowly book reviewer?” Chellis sensibly asks. Then decides “Only about a thousand people [he] could think of offhand.” Then Ms. H. mysteriously disappears. Is there a connection? Chellis, assisted by ex-flame/domestic scientist Elaine, is on the case.

Traditional mystery buffs may feel a bit put out. Griggs hasn’t written a puzzle book that invites the reader to pick up clues and figure out whodunit. Instead she has opted for a more general satire, not only of the mystery genre but the world of CanLit in general. One imagines Farclas to be somewhere in Alice Munro country, and when Chellis drives through “this dingier, ungroomed stretch of the province” with its immense fields sectioned into “deep squares of swishing yellow plant matter,” he sees in its run-down streets the very source of its “literary gothic reputation.” And if this is the source of so much of our literary culture, at the other end retail receives no kinder treatment. One particularly acid scene has Chellis and Elaine going to the mall and visiting a big box bookstore furnished with shelves of books for Dummies and staff who think Tolstoy is a Canadian author.

The structure is wobbly, with the story seeming to lose track of itself on occasion, perhaps from taking a bit too much delight in its own McGuffins. But Chellis is a likeable hero full of charming contradictions – an orphan who is both cynical and gullible, a slacker dedicated to his employer – and the supporting cast are colourful diversions. The writing is relentless in its synaptic firing, and illustrations – yes! illustrations! – by Nick Craine help fill out a thoroughly enjoyable package. Agatha Christie liked to refer to her own mysteries simply as “entertainments,” a form to which Griggs shows herself a capable heir.

Review first published May 16, 2009.

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