by Jamie Portman
(Appeared in Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader-Post, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, The Beacon Herald)
Canadian crime novelist lets the story lead him to its conclusion
Bestselling novelist John Irving once famously observed that whenever he starts a new book, he always writes the last sentence first.
That leave late-flowering Canadian crime novelist Scott Thornley gob smacked.
“My god, I can’t handle that.” he remembers telling himself. So he, a definite novice – compared with the revered Irving, decided to ignore the masters dictum. He prefers not to know where the story he is writing will take him.
In the process, he has delivered a uniquely different series of thrillers set in the fictional Ontario city of Dundurn, which actually is his hometown of Hamilton affectionately, re-tweaked.
His latest novel Middlemen, is another high-wire act that early on confronts his intrepid cop, Detective Superintendent MacNeice, with evidence of two murders – but no bodies.
Authors can paint themselves into a corner with a tantalizing opening like that one, but for Thornley – who only turned to fiction after decades running a respected graphic design business in Toronto – challenging himself is part of the thrill of the chase.
“I don’t know where a book is going when I start writing it,” he tells Postmedia. “I don’t want the reader to know what’s happening, so why the hell should I know? I don’t want to know how all the balls are going to fall.”
Thornley’s five novels show no deficiencies when it comes to adroit plotting and memorable set-piece moments, some of which reflect the gruesome dark-comedy sensibility of a Coen brothers movie. But for Thornley, it’s ultimately his characters that count. He shows a particular zest when it comes to creating unforgettable villains.
“It goes beyond enjoy” he confesses. With Middlemen, he took great delight in serving up for the reader’s delectation a nondescript pint-sized fixer named Clarence Blow whose specialty is lining up hit men at the behest of an un-named client. There’s something ludicrous about Clarence – he nurses a childlike dream of a future new life in Polynesia – but he’s also deadly enough to dissolve his enemies in an acid bath.
Yet there’s nothing two-dimensional about Clarence. He’s – well – complicated.
Thornley doesn’t go for stock villainy. “For example, it’s interesting to create a killer who has compassion in the midst of all the horrible things he does.” He cites two hired hitmen, introduced in the book as One and Two, who may willingly commit murder, yet feel bound by a code of honour.
Thornley was 67 when his debut thriller, Erasing Memory, was published in 2011. Writing about it in the National Post, critic Phillip Marchand applauded its originality, noting that it gave us a killer who “if not a superior twisted mind, is a first-class jerk and we love to see such people get their comeuppance.”
In addition to favourable reviews, Erasing Memory also attracted attention in the bookstores because of a cover illustration depicting a nude woman whose private parts were concealed by a violin.
Thornley designed the cover himself – and why not? He had years of experience creating graphics for his own Toronto-based creative branding agency, in the process picking up some 150 international awards for design. However, in late middle age he was also realizing he had a natural fluidity when it came to the printed word. Even so, a book didn’t happen until he started having nightmares.
“I had a series of dreams that went on for seven or eight months – nightmares related to my late wife who had died years earlier,” he says. Initially he didn’t share them with his current wife, Shirley, but he did start writing them down in a journal by his bedside. Eventually, when she did read them, she suggested there wqas material there for a novel – and that’s how Erasing Memory came to happen.
There are elements of Scott Thornley in MacNeice, the brilliant police detective at the centre of all the novels. He’s a widower, haunted by the death of his wife Kate, and plagued by nightmares about his loss. He has a taste for the potent Italian beverage grappa and for music, both jazz and classical. This prompts Thornley now to talk about jazz greats Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk, and how they might be “pumping through my skull” as he writes.
So where did MacNeice get his name with its unusual spelling? Well, it seems that revered Irish poet Louis MacNeice was a friend of Thornley’s much-loved uncle, and Thornley couldn’t resist borrowing an unusual surname for his fictional cop. “I liked the quirky spelling of MacNeice’s name – where the ‘e’ comes before the ‘I’ instead of after, as is the custom.”
All the novels are odes to Hamilton, altas the fictional city of Dundurn. The name change occurred because of a problem with the first novel. It dealt with a death at a lakeside cottage that in the real world would be outside MacNeice’s jurisdiction. “I knew that many of the men I grew up with would be on my tail if there was a single false note,” Thornley says with a laugh. His solution was still to create a lake – but it would be close, not to Hamilton, but to this fictional city called Dundurn.
“I wanted to signal to my friends, as well as the reader, that this is a work of fiction where every word is true,” Thornley says. He altered the name of a couple of othet landmarks. McMaster University became Brant University, and Stoney Creek became Secord. “I grew up never liking Stoney Creek as a name,” he confesses. But I loved the story of Laure Secord – to me it was pure magic – so for the books I renamed it Secord.”
Still, for any one who knows Hamilton, it’s clearly recognizable in the novels. “So many aspects of Hamilton from the first book onward are by a Hamiltonian writing about that city.”
Indeed, growing up in a place like that offered releases from a troubled childhood. “My father came back from the war severely damaged and as a result did a lot of damage to the family. It was never a happy home. It was shattered many times.”
For the young boy Scott, the city itself provided healing. “Hamilton is a fantastic city for being outside. All the places I write about are places I would cycle to or hike to. I know them really well – including Hamilton’s famous mountain. And coming over the Skyway and seeing the harbour – there’s always this terrible beauty. I’ve always felt that.”
So there you have it – the importance of landscape as character. But there’s one other person Thornley wants people to remember. It’s an engaging dog called Jack who the reader first meets under terrifying circumstances.
“A dog in my own life – Murphy the Wonder Dog – is very much the inspiration for Jack,” Thornley says.
So much of an inspiration, in fact, that you’ll find Murphy’s photo at the end of the book.