Tales of Two Cities: Crime writer John McFetridge explores Canada's urban truths
Published Wednesday, May 26, 2021 1:08PM EDT
Author John McFetridge is seen in this undated photo.
LONDON, ONT. -- With his latest novel about a private investigator based in Toronto, crime fiction author John McFetridge departs from his past success writing about police and criminals. But he stays close to home with his setting; the cities of Toronto and Montreal have long been his playground.
In Every City Is Every Other City, McFetridge introduces us to Gordon Stewart, a part-time private investigator whose main job is as a location scout for the movie industry.
Stewart spends his days finding ways to make Ontario cities look like other places. And he can do it because, as the title says, Every City is Every Other City.
McFetridge writes, “Every city is every other city these days. The same fast food franchises, the same big box stores, the same cars on the roads heading to the same houses in the suburbs.”
But that's a superficial appreciation and it's not the message behind the book.
“I hope I’m saying the cities may appear similar on the surface but they’re really not,” says McFetridge. He admits to a fascination with the suburbs where a repeating pattern of houses and streets conceals a multitude of unique human lives. It’s all about the truth that lies below the surface.
And looking below that surface is Gordon Stewart, a seemingly ordinary fellow who McFetridge admits is partly an autobiographical depiction.
“In terms of values and attitude there is a lot of me in Gord Stewart but in biographical information not so much.”
As a location scout, Stewart is working to make things appear to be something they are not. But as an investigator he is trying to reveal things as they really are.
“I spend my life finding things that people believe are something else; a bar in Toronto is in New York, the front of a house propped up on an empty lot in Oshawa is a haunted house in Maine in 1955, half of downtown is the Suicide Squad’s Midway City.” For Gordon Stewart, life is about ravelling and unravelling identity.
The plot line runs on several tracks at the same time, but it never leaves the reader behind. There is the search he undertakes at the request of his boss in the film industry that may be nothing more than a suicide. There is a search undertaken for his investigative employer which he comes to realize is nefarious in its purpose. And underneath lies the dubious integrity of those corporate investigators, and a romantic liason headed somewhere uncertain.
Those complex storylines set up the future of a series the first volume of which is just being released by Toronto’s ECW Press.
Crime fiction has long been said to employ setting as an additional character, and McFetridge says that’s because the skills required to craft a unique and compelling character are also employed in creating place and plot.
“I think writers who are really good at developing characters like Rankin and Connelly and Louise Penny are also good at digging deeper into setting.”
And for McFetridge, setting means Montreal, the city where he was born and lived the first three decades of his life, and Toronto, the city where he spent the next thirty years.
His stories are deeply seated in Canada’s two biggest cities and he clearly holds each in high esteem, “I don’t really know Montreal now but I know it hasn’t peaked yet. I like Toronto a lot. For all its flaws it’s still full of a lot of really interesting people.”
In his earlier Toronto series, McFetridge tells the story of police investigating a group of biker-like activities, including an intriguing plan to set up a floating marijuana grow-op in the hold of a lake freighter. There are shady characters galore, and more than enough dirty dealing to keep the plot moving forward.
Dirty Sweet, Everbody Knows This is Nowhere and Swap are a very noir vision of a city that calls itself “Toronto the Good.”
McFetridge has been described as Canada’s Ellmore Leonard, perhaps a tribute to the hard-boiled, noir edge in his depiction of Toronto. But after that series he made a conscious decision to move in a softer direction.
“A few things helped move me in that direction,” he says. “Noir is a pretty crowded field these days, but I also think I’m reacting to the times and these days it feels like a challenge to have a gentler attitude.”
The Montreal series departs from the Toronto formula and takes us back to Quebec in the 1970s. Part crime fiction and part historical fiction, the series tells the story of police constable Eddie Dougherty, an Irish Catholic native of the city whom the French and English each see as a member of the other solitude.
His efforts to investigate the cases presented to him are conducted against the backdrops of the FLQ crisis, the 1972 Summit Series, and the 1976 Summer Olympics. If you lived through the seventies, you will be taken back in time by the evocative story of Eddie Dougherty.
Black Rock, A Little More Free and One or the Other - all featuring Dougherty - are McFetridge’s perspective of the two solitudes. But as part of the Scots-Irish community in the city, he did not feel particularly part of the Anglo solitude.
“I felt like an outsider in the whole two solitudes discussion…I certainly didn’t feel like a part of the solitude that was described as having all the money and power,” he says while describing the election of the separatist Parti Quebecois in 1976.
Perhaps uncommon among crime fiction writers, McFetridge cites his main influence as coming from outside the genre.
“When I started reading seriously my influences in crime fiction were all the usual suspects but I think the writer that had the biggest influence on my life was Alice Munro.”
Her stories of life in rural Huron County won Munro a Nobel Prize for literature, and would have been a slow burn compared to the high anxiety and fast moving plots of thrillers and mysteries. But for McFetridge, the impact was in the discovery of just how profound great writing can be.
“Reading her books helped me understand my mother a lot better and really helped that relationship. That’s when I really understood the power of writing.”
With his iconic opening words to A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens embarked on an exploration of Paris and London during the French Revolution. An English city and a French city, and the historic events that tied them together while keeping them apart. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Dickens.
John McFetridge may not be describing Toronto and Montreal during quite such tumultuous times but he accomplishes much the same result.
With crime fiction as his medium, he tells us about ourselves and our own great cities. Their sameness and their differences.
And yes, Gordon Stewart will be back.
“When I started writing Every City is Every Other City I hoped it would become a series. I always think of private eyes as series.”
The next adventure facing Gordon Stewart is already being written, and we can only wait to see what it will tell us about the cities we love…and the unique people who live here.