Boldness about oldness

Brett Josef Grubisic’s latest, highly inventive novel, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O, is flippant and learned, and exhaustively current, according to reviewer Dustin Cole. REVIEW

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Trilogy optioned for TV series

August 02nd, 2018

Straight Circles (Anvil Press 2018)
by Jackie Bateman

Review by Caroline Woodward

In the diverse genre of suspense writing, North Vancouver’s Jackie Bateman offers us the final book in her Lizzy Trilogy set in Scotland, a grim inspection of domestic abuse, child neglect and murder. This is hard-boiled suspense despite the clever insertion of a cozy knitting shop in the fictional Scottish town of Dalbegie where winter is setting in and “it’s Baltic out there,” as one landlady aptly puts it.

It will come as no surprise to fans of these well-written novels – albeit deeply chilling at several levels – and readers and TV viewers who favour gritty British and Nordic Noir mystery series (okay, full disclosure, rabid fans like my own self) that the Lizzy Trilogy has been optioned for a multi-episode TV series. The first two well-received novels, also published by Vancouver’s Anvil Press, are Nondescript Rambunctious and Savour. I can only hope they get the production values, and the terrific writing and acting chops, of the Cardinal TV series, based on the acclaimed police procedural novels by Giles Blunt, also a Canadian.

Bateman obviously knows her suspense writing formulas and sub-genres, and skillfully applies cracking good dialogue and just the right amount of Scottish dialect; as well as a deft hand at pacing and acutely observant descriptive powers. She uses four main narrators to tell this story, dipping us in and out of their heads, while ratcheting up the tension to nearly unbearable levels.

Former runaway Lizzy is the main narrator, newly pregnant and on a quest to find out what happened to her mother nearly two decades earlier when she simply disappeared from bleak Dalbegie.

Not one, but two serial killers reveal their plans in their respective chapters and what’s worse, they have more than a passing acquaintance with each other. Oliver is an obsessive man, forever cleaning himself and his surroundings, using bleach and scalding hot water. He must wear a hat to conceal the damage he’s done to his own scalp. Oliver, an early computer user, has discovered a way to monetize his murderous urges, which led Helen to him some years before. Helen began life as one of the crawling wounded, quite literally the twin given up for adoption as a baby. She has been wreaking her random vengeance on the rest of the world ever since, in a creepily convincing portrayal of the terminally jealous and forever-angry sibling who refuses to let go of real and imagined childhood grievances.

Helen, squat and heavyset, favours a bowl-cut hairdo, and works full-time in a cat shelter in Edinburgh, where her anti-social and smelly self is avoided by co-workers and strangers alike. The cats are safe. People, randomly chosen, are most certainly not. Unhappily for Lizzy, and a few others, Helen has decided to take her two-week vacation in Dalbegie where she continues to compete with Oliver, whether he knows it or not.

The other most frequent narrator of the main foursome is Lauren, the ghost of Lizzy’s mother. In Bateman’s hands, this does not present a credibility issue. In fact, some of the best writing in the book comes from the point of view of this hovering, other-worldly mother, offering wisdom and warning, unheard in death and often ignored in life, the lot of mothers to wayward daughters the world over.

Just as in real life, the thoughts and actions of damaged and dangerous people do not need to “make sense” and Bateman shows how prevalent vicious behaviour is, especially when fuelled by drugs, alcohol and morbid projections triggered by a voice, a laugh, a briefcase. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time has never made sense but usually we call these occasions by the more benign term, ‘accidents.’ Not so in Dalbegie, where the author returns to her Scottish roots and pungently evokes the townsfolk’s hard drinking, deep-fried diets and penchant for spreading malicious gossip. Like all first-rate mystery writers, Bateman is keenly aware of societal ills and provides an especially gritty depiction of addictions and the damage done, especially to grubby, malnourished children left to fend for themselves far too much of the time.

Helping others, as Lizzy instinctively does, makes most of us feel more fully connected to other humans because kindness and empathy expand the heart, put simply and metaphorically, not medically. Whereas harming others makes some of us, like Oliver and Helen, feel more powerful, whether the target is a tiny child, a timid wife, or an unsuspecting healthy young male hiker. The book does not dwell on their depravity, much less revel in it, but their character development is an uncanny blend of what onlookers might recognize in an external, superficial way, i.e. ‘that pale man with the hat,’ or ‘that dumpy woman in the long overcoat,’ and the internal, or psychological, blind spots experienced by these creatures. They are prisoners of their own obsessions and ultimately, they lack crucial elements of self-control and self-awareness, which readers will see revealed by the novel’s conclusion. There are black holes in their psyches where souls ought to be, to channel Granny Mac, an off-page, long-dead character who dwells securely in the hearts and minds of her generations of offspring, especially Lauren and Lizzy.

Every single character, major and minor, among the watchful eyes on Dalbegie’s High Street or in the overgrown back yards of the side streets, plays a memorable role and the good and generous nature of small towns is revealed as well in a very satisfying ending to this book and the Lizzy Trilogy.

978-1-77214-114-6

*
Caroline Woodward’s novel, Alaska Highway Two-Step, first published by Polestar Press in 1993, was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Best First Mystery Award by the Crime Writers of Canada. It was re-published by Harbour Publishing in 2017.

 

 

 

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