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2007 02 13
Imagining Toronto the Damned

As the winter moon waxes I find myself restless and rise often in the middle of the night. I ghost through the house, pausing to stare through frost-etched windows at a streetscape so frigid with moonlight that even its shadows have shattered and fallen into the snow. The winter night is a boney hand that claws and cackles into the wind. As it reaches for the full moon, something in my study falls with a thump and I turn toward the darkness with a start of alarm.

It's just another pile of noir novels set in Toronto, tipped over by one of the cats.

Who'd have thought Toronto the Good could produce such a hearse-load of dark fiction? Since turning to Toronto literature full-time a little over a year ago, I've come across more Toronto-based murders, mysteries and thrillers every week. And it's not just the relatively mannered scenes of revenge and violence that crop up transiently in the city's high literature (e.g., free-falling vamps in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride, vengeful ditch-diggers in Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion, or crazed shrinks in Timothy Findley's Headhunter). No, Toronto also supports a booming trade in popular and pulp fiction. A demon that tears the throats out of hapless transit riders at Eglinton West subway station. A severed hand in the Don Valley, once attached to a member of the Law Society. Royal Ontario Museum mummies with the urge for a snack (not to mention your soul). Mobsters who put the con in your King West condominium. Psychic schizophrenics. A shambling, flesh-shedding thing emerging from the wading pool in the neighbourhood park.

Such detail and depth exploring Toronto's dark side seems to go a long way toward putting the lie to claims that Toronto lacks anything for literary character. You don't have to embark on armchair travel to England to read about rippers: try Graham McNamee's Acceleration (2003) or Tanya Huff's Blood Price (1991); Huff also writes about a romance-writing vampire who lives in a downtown condo and the ROM's escapee mummy. Suburban horror? Try Linwood Barclay's Bad Move (2004) or Hugh Garner's classic Death in Don Mills (1975). Victorian murder mysteries? Maureen Jennings' award-winning Detective William Murdoch series. Punk noir? Daniel Jones' 1978 (1999). Class commentary and crime on the same page? Vivian Meyer's Bottom Bracket (2006) and Pat Capponi's Last Stop Sunnyside (12006).

As part of the Imagining Toronto project, I maintain an expanding catalogue (and library) of mystery/detective/noir novels set in Toronto. It's so frequently requested that I've posted it below as well. The following is far from complete: if Reading Toronto readers have any suggestions, please feel welcome to comment. If you would like me to email you a complete copy of the list, please contact me at alharris@yorku.ca. I also maintain a much less complete list of Toronto-based science fiction novels which may be accessed here (scroll down to the sci-fi list)

Ackler, Howard, 2005. The City Man (a pickpocket gang in 1930s Toronto).

Rosemary Aubert's Ellis Portal mystery series, largely about a disgraced former judge who finds himself living in a shack in the Don Valley before finding redemption in selfless acts. Free Reign (1997), The Feast of Stephen (1999), The Ferryman Will Be There (2001), Leave Me By Dying (2003), and Red Mass (2006).

Baker, Nancy, 1993. The Night Inside. Toronto: Viking. Later re-released as Kiss of the Vampire.

Toronto star writer Linwood Barclay's Bad Move (2004) and Bad Guys (2005). New York: Bantam.

Battan, Jack, 1991. Blood Count. Toronto: Macmillan.

Brady, Liz, 2001. Bad Date. (A Jane Yeats Mystery) Toronto: Second Story Press.

Anti-poverty activist Pat Capponi's Last Stop Sunnyside (2006), featuring a group of rooming house residents to work together to solve the murder of their friend.

Carpenter, J.D., 2001. The Devil in Me. (A Campbell Young Mystery). Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Deverell, William, 1995. Street Legal: The Betrayal. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. (Deverell is the creator of the CBC Street Legal series.)

Gibson, Brian, 2004. Bleeding Daylight. Thornhill, Ontario: Oubliette Press. Set largely at York University.

Gordon, Alison, 1995. Striking Out. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. See also: Safe at Home (1991).

Green, Terrence M., 1996. Blue Limbo. New York: Tor.

Green, Terrence M., 1988. Barking Dogs. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Holmes, Michael, 2000. Watermelon Row. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. An excellent, if exceptionally violent, novel about how easy it can be to slip into skid row.

Tanya Huff's witty and suspense-filled Vicki Nelson series featuring a female ex-cop and a Romance-writing vampire: Blood Price (1991), Blood Trail (1992), Blood Lines (1992), Blood Pact (1993), and Blood Debt (1997). Huff's Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light (1989) is also set in Toronto.

Maureen Jennings' award-winning Detective William Murdoch mystery series set in Victorian Toronto, including Vices of My Blood (2006), Night's Child (no. 5, 2005), Let Loose the Dogs (no. 4, 2002), Poor Tom is Cold (no. 3, 2001), Under the Dragon's Tail (no. 2, 1998), and Except the Dying (no. 1, 2001, a novel which won a commendation from Heritage Toronto).

MacKay, Scott, 2003. Old Scores. (Detective Barry Gilbert series) St. Martins Minotaur. See also: Fall Guy (2001) and Cold Comfort (1998).

McFetridge, John, 2006. Dirty Sweet. Toronto: ECW Press. Sex and violence in Toronto's real estate market.

Meyer, Vivian, Bottom Bracket (2006). A fun, fast-paced crime novel set in Kensington Market. The protagonist is a thirty-something female bicycle courier.

Moritsugu, Kim, 2003. The Glenwood Treasure. Toronto: Dundurn. Light-hearted mystery set in Rosedale.

Rehner, Jan, 2003. Just Murder. Toronto: Sumach. Rehner teaches at York University.

Swan, John, 2004. Sap. Toronto: Insomniac Press. Classic noir.

Eric Wright's Charlie Salter mystery series, including The Last Hand (2002), The Night the Gods Smiled (1984; winner of the City of Toronto book award), Smoke Detector (1984), Death in the Old Country (1985), A Single Death (1986), A Body Surrounded by Water (1987), A Question of Murder (1988), A Sensitive Case (1990), Final Cut (1991), A Fine Italian Hand (1992), and Death By Degrees (1993).

[The full moon over Mississauga image is by Artur and is used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 02/13 at 01:14 PM

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