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The low-key mysteries of L.R. Wright

August 07th, 2012

Mystery writer L.R. ‘Bunny’ Wright exhibits in the words of her screenwriting partner and husband John Wright, “great privacy and reserve”. These traits are found in her characters, plots, and even her settings.

For example, Wright chose the quiet, small town of Sechelt as the location for her Karl Alberg mystery novels. Located on the Sunshine Coast, Sechelt is accessible only by ferry or float plane and straddles the low spine of land between the Strait of Georgia and Sechelt Inlet.

Wright’s ‘Sechelt’ series began with The Suspect. The only violence occurs on the first page as an 80-year-old man hits his brother-in-law on the head with a blunt instrument and kills him. Wright was intrigued by the idea that elderly people are capable of doing the same things as younger people. So why not murder?

“The next logical thing to happen was that the crime would be investigated,” she says, and hence an award-winning mystery series was inadvertently born. The Suspect was the first Canadian Novel to win the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; and this year Wright’s A Chill Rain in January received the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian crime novel.

Her fourth book in the Sechelt series, Fall From Grace (Bantam), is being released this fall. It is about a young photographer carrying a lot of money who dies after falling off a cliff on an island near Sechelt. Was it an accident? Or murder? ‘Old sins have long shadows’ is the saying which illustrates the story.

The RCMP investigator Wright created, Karl Alberg, is as low-key as cops come. He is almost reluctant to become involved. But once faced with the fact of a crime, Alberg becomes cold, detached, and his face reveals nothing. He’s a cop when necessary, but not necessarily always a cop.

When off duty Alberg worries about his two grown daughters’ career choices; he dates the town librarian, Cassandra; and he frets about his expanding waistline. The slow-brewing romance between Alberg and Cassandra typifies the highly realistic relationships that are the basis of L.R. Wright’s non-mystery novels: Neighbours (1979), The Favourite (1982), Among Friends (1984) and Love in the Temperate Zone (1990).

Laurali Rose Wright was born in Saskatoon in 1939, and was later raised in Abbotsford. At 12 she read L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of the New Moon and realized she wanted to be a writer. Her father gave her a hard-bound ‘daily journal’ and she began describing fires and other events she saw, and also wrote in it “awful, vile poetry”.

She soon learned that very few people make a living writing books, and considered newspaper journalism. After graduating from high school she worked her way up from a Mission, B.C. weekly to Senior Assistant City Editor of the Calgary Herald.

Newspaper work sharpened her ability to relate events “in language people could understand”, and a willingness to edit copy to make things clear. “I don’t have any trouble at all going through the last revision and cutting,” she says. In Fall From Grace, the fact that her main characters knew each other in the Sechelt high school did not emerge until the final draft.

Wright has never lived in Sechelt but feels acquainted enough with the community to describe it in some detail. “My mother-in-law has lived there for twenty years or so,” she says, “so I’ve stayed overnight in Sechelt maybe ten times in my entire life.”

She wasn’t sure how her publisher or agent would react when she submitted her first ‘Sechelt’ novel, because “it’s such a long way from New York.” But they were delighted. “They get a bit wistful and say ‘Gee, is it really like that up there?’”

They are not alone. Wright has heard from people in other parts of Canada and the U.S. who have gone to the Sunshine Coast for a holiday after reading about it in one of her novels. And the residents of Sechelt don’t seem to mind. “They’ve become quite blasé ever since The Beachcombers was filmed there starting about 20 years ago. They are used to having their towns and villages being more public,” Wright says.

They may not have been so indifferent if Wright’s novels were like many in the detective genre, where tough private eyes face almost daily scenes of gore and violence. Wright’s novels emphasise character rather than plot or procedure. “I’m more interested in why people do things rather than in what is done,” she says.

Wright says being a woman is no barrier to creating a lead character who is a man. “All characters present problems for a writer,” she says. “People who are crazy – because I’ve never been crazy; children – because I’m not a child. But there are traits in all of them the writer can attach to, like there are masculine traits in women and feminine traits in men, so I latch onto those.”

There are exceptions. Her favourite character in Fall from Grace, Annabel, has little in common with Wright. Annabel is an unfaithful married woman who plants a rose bush for every lover she has had, but is frequently battered by her jealous husband. “I have never known anyone who has gone through that experience and I never have myself,” Wright says. How, then, could she so believably portray Annabel’s struggle to contain her rage over her husband’s outbursts of violence, and find ways to blame herself for his beatings? “It is a credit to the media, to TV and movies, which have portrayed that experience accurately. I can only imagine the anger that there must be in those women.”

Although Wright draws on media reports for some of the details in her stories she doesn’t base her plots on actual case histories. “I think of myself as a novelist, and what I write is not based on research but on the characters.”

Wright primes her creative energies before each new novel by re-reading her favourite authors, Patrick White and John Updike. “They are,” she says without hesitation, “the best writers in the world today, because they are such rich novelists, their work is so layered, and so filled with wonderful observations. It’s really a treat.”

Wright’s Sechelt whodunits have earned enough money – just enough – to enable her to write books full time. They’ve been translated into eight languages and movie rights have been sold for The Suspect and A Chill Rain in January. She and John Wright are writing the screenplay for another, which she won’t name.

In spite of the fact that her mysteries are more lucrative than her ‘mainstream’ novels, Wright says she never writes for money alone. “I have been writing exactly what I want to write. This is the way I want to spend my time and I’m able to do it. I’ve worked long and hard for that.”

Essay Date: 1991

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