Canada 150: The best Canadian crime novels of all time


Happy birthday, Canada. Yes, the country is celebrating 150 years since its confederation, with home rule granted to the four colonies by Queen Victoria way back on 1 July 1867. Today we’re celebrating with the country in the best way we know how, by looking at its finest crime novels.

To help us with the job, we’ve turned to our number one Canadian draft pick, Jacques Filippi. Back in the early days of Crime Fiction Lover he wrote plenty of reviews for us under the nom de plume HoCam – short for House of Crime and Mystery. Jacques own career in the world of crime fiction has taken off and on 16 October you’ll see the release of Montreal Noir, from Akashic Books, which Jacques has co-edited. It’s fair to say he’s an expert not just on crime fiction from the province of Quebec, but across Canada. And to ensure this list is next to flawless, Jacques has conferred with leading booksellers and authors in Canada. Let’s take a look at what he’s got for us…

10 – Black Rock by John McFetridge (2015)
Black Rock opens the Eddie Dougherty series is my favourite English language crime novel set in Montreal. Actually, if I add McFetridge’s two follow-up novels, A Little More Free and One or the Other, this is my favourite series set in the city. It features young cop and wannabe-detective Eddie Dougherty at different times in Montreal’s history. In Black Rock, the year is 1970, during turbulent times of bombings, political kidnappings, and a city trying to find its own identity through street protests, strikes and general confusion. In the midst of it all, Dougherty accumulates overtime as a patrol cop and, off-the-clock, investigates a series of murders that the police department’s overworked detectives don’t have time to look into. McFetridge has a knack for minimalist descriptions and straight dialogue filled with tongue-in-cheek humour.
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9 – Dead in the Water by Ted Wood (1983)
I had forgotten about Ted Wood, an author I read in the late 80s and early 90s, until I saw his name on Linwood Barclay’s list of suggestions for this article. I went back to Dead in the Water with the intention of reading a few chapters to remind me of the story and I ended up going through the entire novel. Reading about small-town, rogue cop Reid Bennett chasing drug traffickers, investigating murders, and beating up thugs, I had flashbacks to other books by Ted Wood. I’m pretty sure his novels went out of print for a while, but Open Media has made them available for Kindle and as paperbacks.
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8 – Innocent Graves by Peter Robinson (1996)
This is the eigth novel in the Inspector Alan Banks series, by a British-born Canadian author. Several of the authors and booksellers I consulted included Peter Robinson in their suggestions but all had different favourites. In the end, I chose mine. Innocent Graves is about the murder of a teenage girl, daughter of a rich and powerful man. Through his investigation, Banks finds out that many people have deeply buried secrets, including the dead girl and her father, of course, and the list of suspects keeps growing. The plot seems at first very simple but Robinson weaves together a masterful story that goes in different directions while remaining believable. It won the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel.
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7 – Outlander by Gil Adamson (2007)
No detectives here, no investigation, none of the usual crime fiction paradigms. But we do have a murder, a pursuit, and a fascinating inspection of the Canadian West in 1903. Mary Boulton has killed her cheating husband, and is being hunted down by his two brothers. Twins, with red hair, they are coming on horseback for the 19-year-old. Mary is caught and imprisoned, but there is some sympathy for her and her plight. With a little help, she slips custody. At various points she lives in the wild with a mountain man, helps a preacher at a mining camp, and witnesses a terrible disaster in the foothills of the Rockies. Adamson’s storytelling style is dreamlike, and her main character not only travels through unpredictable terrain in the physical world, but confronts the same in her mental state. Outlander won the Hammet Prize in hits year of publication.
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6 – Too Close to Home by Linwood Barclay (2008)
Outside Canada, Linwood Barclay is the name that most often comes to mind when Canadian crime fiction is mentioned. In Too Close to Home, a killer executes an entire family in the town of Promise Falls; the man living next door thinks he knows the reason why. And his family could be next. As with most Barclay novels, you know that the plotlines going in different directions will connect at some point, but good luck at working it out before they do. I’ve often compared Promise Falls (where Barclay sets his most recent novels) to Stephen King’s Castle Rock without the paranormal aspects but with just as many dead bodies piling up. As King does, Barclay pulls us inside his world where we meet so many rich characters, follow their lives and get to know them so intimately that we feel as if we’re living there. Which is why it’s always difficult to leave them. Winner of the 2009 Arthur Ellis Award.
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5 – Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (2007)
This book was nominated for the Canadian literary prize the Governor General’s Award for English Language Literature in 2007, but surprisingly not for the crime-specific Arthur Ellis Award. It’s a literary thriller that explores the lives of different characters – one is a paedophile and the other the nine-year old girl he ‘needs to save’. There are also the girl’s mother and the man’s girlfriend. Gowdy doesn’t take sides and her feat is in drawing a complex character in Ron, the paedophile, who is struggling with his impulses and who really believes he is saving the girl. The book was considered controversial at the time and probably remains so today, but Gowdy is a talented writer who had the guts to take a different approach.
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4 – Needles by William Deverell (1979)
Set in Vancouver, Needles is a gritty legal thriller mixed inside a noir mystery that takes a hard look at prostitution and the drug trade. In the story, Foster Cobb is the lawyer prosecuting a shady Asian drug lord, though the lawyer himself has succumbed to a heroin habit. According to Sam Wiebe, author and Vancouverite, the book was ahead of its time, especially in Canadian fiction. Dietrich Kalteis, another author living in Vancouver adds, “It’s a kick ass novel with wicked twists.” Deverell is now 80 years old and he hasn’t lost any of his wit, humour, or authorly skill. This book won the $50,000 Seal First Novel Award, a prize around in the 70s and 80s to encourage Canadian writing talent.
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3 – The Chill by Ross Macdonald (1964)
Ross Macdonald’s real name was Kenneth Millar, a Canadian-raised American writer. The Chill is book 11 in the Lew Archer series, and here Archer suspects that the police have arrested the wrong person for the murder of a college prof. As he investigates, he finds out about similar murders that can’t be linked to the person in custody. Macdonald went a bit against a few of the clichés of hardboiled writing and was able to convey complex female characters that weren’t just there to make the PI or detective look tough and witty. As a bonus, The Chill has great plot twists and a brilliant ending.
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2 – Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (2010)
Louise Penny is a Crime Fiction Lover favourite, and this book won no fewer than five international crime writing awards. It’s the sixth Armand Gamache novel. While Gamache is in Québec City trying to solve the murder of a man who spent his entire life in the search of Samuel de Champlain’s burial site, Inspector Beauvoir is back in Three Pines trying to tie up loose ends from their previous investigation (The Brutal Telling). This is still my favourite in the series for various reasons. I felt like Louise Penny was exploring new territory in this one, not just a new setting, but she went deeper into Gamache’s psyche and showed his vulnerability. It is the moving portrait of a man haunted by his work, by the accumulation of victims. It’s also fitting that 1 July, Canada Day, is also Louise Penny’s birthday.
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1 – Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt (2000)
My all-time favourite from a Canadian writer in English, and also the most popular title with the booksellers I surveyed across the country. Detective John Cardinal, along with Special Investigator Lise Delorme, is on the hunt for a serial killer of young girls in the brutal cold of Northern Ontario. Author Peggy Blair says that it’s all about “…the grittiness, the humour, the multi-layered plot, the three-dimensional, sympathetic and complicated characters.” It’s the first of six books in a great series, and other titles, like By the Time You Read This or Until the Night, could also have been in this top 10. Forty Words for Sorrow was a commercial success that opened the doors for other Canadian authors on the international scene and earlier this year it became a highly-praised TV series. It won the 2001 CWA Silver Dagger in the UK.
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Thank you… to the many booksellers (too many to name them here) and the authors Giles Blunt, Linwood Barclay, KJ Howe, Dietrich Kalteis, Sam Wiebe, Linda L Richards and Peggy Blair who took the time to write back and discuss Canadian crime fiction with me.

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3 Comments

  1. Wayne Arthurson Reply

    I’d temove Ross Mcdonald and put in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect (1986). As the first and only true Canadian to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel, she should be on this list. It’s a shame she was forgotten. Howard Engel and Gail Bowen could have found spots too, especially Engel’s Benny Cooperman’s book. Classic Canadian crime and he wrote the final book in the series after a stroke removed his ability to read.

  2. Brian Busby Reply

    Great list. I was happy to see Ross Macdonald included as he’s all to often not recognized as Canadian. A small correction, Macdonald (Millar, if you prefer) was actually born in the California to visiting Canadian parents. That said, he was raised in Canada, returning to live in the States in his mid-twenties. I would be wrong not to mention his wife Margaret Millar, whose novels also rank amongst the very finest Canadian mysteries. Beast in View is perhaps her best known, but I recommend An Air that Kills.

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