Eugene Meese, A Magpie's Smile

A book club selection: but why can't I keep the name straight? Eugene Meese, I know the author's name cold, but sometimes I call it A Magpie Smiles, sometimes A Magpie Smile, even The Magpie's Smile, but odds aren't great that I can spit out the correct title, that being A Magpie's Smile.

We've read a few smaller-press Western Canadian mystery novels in the club, and this is another good read -- more like Stan Evans than like Ron Chudley. A Magpie's Smile is set in Calgary, 1977, so there's lots of good details about the city's evolution during the 70s oil boom as perspective on the more recent oil boom (which may or may not be continuing, depending who you ask). Remaining alive in the present are all the thematic issues that Meese raises about immigration, the deservedly poor, uncontrolled urban development, and so on, but they're rooted really tightly in a particular historical context that Meese evokes well. He was a journalist in Calgary in the 70s, so presumably he's got some sound memories to draw on.

Or as sound as anyone's memories might be from those hallowed years.

It's self-consciously pulpy at points, presumably both catering for an imagined audience and self-consciously ironizing the author's literary pretensions, but that's not always a distraction. On the other hand, sometimes it is. Though as well done as such things can be, the early bra-change scene seemed entirely unnecessary, for example, I think reflecting on the publisher's or author's low expectations of the average mystery reader. (If you're read the book, you'll know the scene. If you haven't, well, it's not overly distracting, but not at all central to the plot.) This novel would work pretty well as a movie, I'd say, especially the dramatic closing scenes and the nice little coda of a final section.

I'm more or less okay with the negative review in Quill & Quire, though I'd never have expected to see a mystery novel positively reviewed there (if reviewed at all in Q&Q). The negative review at The Mystery Site is more interesting to me for what it says about the reviewer, though, than about the book; apparently as a mystery novel, A Magpie's Smile is too much novel and not enough mystery, and the real problem is that you don't spend enough time with the killer or the investigation, getting instead too much of the detective.

No, I disagree. The real problem is simply that Meese has multiple audiences for this novel, and he fails to please any of them by trying a little too hard to please all of them. It's not literary enough, it's not enough like contemporary mystery writing, it's too much of a historical novel, and so on.

But this is a standard problem in Canadian writing, faced by not just A Magpie's Smile but The Englishman's Boy, Girlfriend in a Coma, even The Edible Woman. If the audience is small, you may want to appeal to multiple audiences, right? RIght? No, because it's more likely to alienate everyone than to engage everyone, and you're better off with a small but intense group of followers. [Insert a Christ joke here, if you like. Or a terrorism one, if that's more your style, or even one about the 2010 French footballers at the World Cup.]

Bottom line: If you like mysteries, especially those set in Canada, then it'll work for you. Just don't read it with too jaundiced an eye!


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