Sunday, December 21, 2008

Home to the Present

This week's guest blogger is Mel Bradshaw. His debut novel, Death in the Age of Steam broke some new ground for a Canadian Crime novel. Its setting is Toronto of the 1850s and Mel succeeds in capturing that time with almost photographic intensity. His next was...well, I'll let the man himself tell you all about it. Thanks for joining us, Mel!


It’s an honour to have been asked to guest blog on Type M for Murder. My maiden blog anywhere, no less. I seem to be chronically behind the times—my excuse having always been that I write historical crime fiction.

My first novel, Death in the Age of Steam, was set in the Canada and (briefly) the Michigan of 1856. I used the search for a missing woman to explore a world now mostly forgotten, but eerily familiar in its wildly expansionist economy. Then the bubble arose because of unrealistic confidence in railways as infinite generators of wealth. Corners were cut, regulations flouted, morals compromised, and lives lost. For my second time trip, I stopped in Prohibition-era 1926. I found the fashions and frenzy of the Roaring Twenties irresistible, but saw the decade also as a potentially tragic postscript to the bloodbath of World War I. Hence my title Quarrel with the Foe, which harks back to John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” The plot turns on the murder of an industrialist, who profited during the war from shipping shoddy munitions to allied troops in Belgium.

Book #3, however, has broken the mould. The late adopter as always, I finally decided to write a crime novel set in my own age. With each day’s news, I was becoming more and more convinced of a gap between the kind of justice people want from their courts and the kind of justice judges and academics think these people ought to have. I decided to close the gap by making a university criminologist the victim of a violent crime and to see how he reacted. The just released Victim Impact is the result.

L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” As a novelist, I found almost the reverse. I was used to pouring over old books and documents, viewing historic paintings and photographs, visiting heritage buildings. If a bygone era started out as foreign, I knew how to make it less so.

Researching the present for Victim Impact was another matter. For example—

Historic jails are sometimes open to the public. Contemporary ones not. If I wanted a fictional murder suspect detained in the Maplehurst Correctional Complex, I couldn’t just walk in through the four sets of locked doors and take notes. I needed a new research method. What I did was get a psychologist with inmate clients to describe the Maplehurst visitors’ room for me.

Historic documents too, even if private to begin with, are often opened to public scrutiny after a number of years. What harm when concerned parties have all died off? In the Ontario provincial archives, you can actually read judges’ bench books from the 19th century. Not so court documents of the 21st. To my surprise, I found that even statements read aloud in open court are not routinely made available for inspection. Victim Impact Statements were what interested me most. A VIS allows victims to say how the crime has affected them, so the harm they’ve suffered may be considered by the judge when deciding on an appropriate punishment. Anyone in the public gallery will hear the VIS. And yet the court office will not permit members of the public to inspect these statements after the sentencing hearing has occurred. I was limited in my research to those few VIS that the victims themselves had released to the media. Fortunately, these proved enough.

Researching the present often meant oral interviews, collecting from experts opinions not sifted and tested by the passage of time. But I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that no books were of any use. A major feature of Victim Impact is biker gang culture, which has attracted serious if wary study. Interested readers should look for Daniel R. Wolf’s classic The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers. Or The Road to Hell by Julian Sher and William Marsden, winner of an Arthur Ellis Award for true crime.


Donis Casey said...

These sound like my kind of books

Rick Blechta said...

Mel, as I said in my intro, is a terrific writer and Death in the Age of Steam is one of those books that really stays with you. His novels always go right to the top of my TBR stack, and Victim Impact is no exception.