John McFetridge, ECW Press
Kelli relaxed. She'd seen the inside of a lot of Beamers and Mercs and, hell, even Land Rovers since coming to Toronto a month back. She looked at the guy, cheapskate biz boy in his thirties, and thought he wasn't so bad, really, just acting tough. It was always good to get the first one of the night out of the way.After the publication of his debut novel Dirty Sweet, the parallels between John McFetridge and that master of crime fiction Elmore Leonard were readily apparent. Both novelists concern themselves with criminals slightly less smart than they put on, and police slightly smarter than they let on. Both imbue their primary settings (Leonard has Detroit, McFetridge, Toronto) with a heady grit and coarseness that elevates the status of the cities above that of narrative backdrops to that of major characters. Both write deliciously crunchy dialogue which sting the reader with their own unique urban patois.
She looked up and saw a man's face, floating, hanging in the sky. He looked her right in the eye.
Then he smashed into the windshield.
The cheapskate screamed like a girl.
And Kelli just stared at the face on the spiderweb of broken glass. The blood and bits of brain and bone. He must have fallen the full twenty-five floors.From Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
Now, upon reading McFetridge's second, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, it is apparent McFetridge is no mere clone of Leonard. Dirty Sweet was entertaining, but McFetridge could have settled at that point into a nice career as a second-rater with flashes of brilliance (read: Tim Dorsey). Everybody Knows showcases a writer coming into his own. Granted, the parallels with the master (what else could you call Leonard at this point in his career?) are still present, but McFetridge had broadened the distance between the two, creating a Toronto as dangerous-cool as Leonard's Detroit, yet somehow sharper, more angular. Leonard's Detroit is a grungy yet somehow loveable creation; you could see yourself living there, enjoying the dingyness. McFetridge's Toronto is permeated with grime and murk, both physically and morally. While his overall style may be closer to Leonard's, McFetridge's Toronto is far more malevolent in tone, closer to the bleakness of Ed McBain's fabled city of Isola in his 87th Precinct series [sidenote: Please read McBain, everyone. No better American writer of the police procedural has ever been produced.]. This Toronto is not a family-friendly city, but a metropolis of cynicism and spite; "[No] one noticed. Or no one cared. After all,it wasn't keeping people away from downtown shopping or bringing down real estate values. Toronto built its ghetto way out in the burbs, never thinking it was a growth industry."
McFetridge crafts a labyrinth and distinctly cinematic crime drama with Everybody Knows, flipping back and forth between drug dealers and police officers as they go about their daily routines. There's the detectives Armstrong and Bergeron, staking out a possible grow-op while embroiled in a missing child case; Bobbi, a woman with a faulty electronic tracking device on her ankle and a chance on making serious cash with her grow-op; Nugs, a thug with more smarts than you could guess; and more characters than can be easily accounted for. When you add in the mob, mcguffins, backstabbings and reversals, and dizzing subplots, you get one hell of a delicious read.
Plot-wise, Everybody Knows is a bit of a shaggy dog, with loose ends dangling everywhere, but that's part of its allure; these are a few days in the lives of its characters, where there is not so much a mystery as there is a confluence of circumstances that draws everyone together at different times. Where McFetridge really shines, much like as Leonard, is in his atmosphere, created by a narrative style so condensed and stark and frosted over by winter's chill it threatens to recast Leonard's already pared-down prose as overtly purple.
McFetridge is fast becoming the noir writer of the Canadian urban landscape (yes, there is too a Canadian urban landscape). Dirty Sweet hinted at the talent; Everybody Knows This is Nowhere stops hinting, and smacks you in the jaw.