Sunday, December 4, 2011

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, by John McFetridge

Usually when I read a novel, I get a sense pretty quickly about how well it jibes with my own reading taste. Sometimes an author has to grow on me. And sometimes, more rarely, something mysterious happens where another look will have me completely on board.  

I read the first book in the Toronto Series, Dirty Sweet, a couple of years ago now, I think. Although I liked the book, I was a bit taken aback by its milieu of schemers, cops and hookers, and though I could admire it technically, I wasn't completely on board with its intent. It seemed to me like more of a guy's book, and I didn't really feel like I was part of its target audience. Fair enough, I thought. Not everything works for everybody.

Somewhere around Christmas last year, though, I read a short story John reprinted as the wrap up for a  Christmas challenge they did over at Do Some Damage, Santa in a Red Dress . I'm not quite sure if it has crossover characters from Dirty Sweet, but it is the same patch of territory he's working there, and there are definitely some of the same people in Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In any case, I had the pleasant experience of recognizing the voice and realizing how much I appreciated it that time around.  

Recently, then, I pulled a copy of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere off the shelf and dove right in. "Dove right in" is a pretty apt set up on this book, when I come to think of it, though that's probably all I should say about that.  Let's just say that something unexpected happens to a hooker and a john in the course of their normal transactions. It's typical of McFetridge's stories, I think that once the cops arrive, the guy basically just wants to get out of there, but the girl is interested and realizes that this is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. However, they are but prologue to our entertainment here, which takes us on a vast tour of what can only be called Toronto on the make.

Americans like me, who live a long way from Toronto and from Canada in general, don't necessarily have a real conception of Toronto at all, but in some ways, the city as portrayed in these books could be likened to the Wild West. A lot of new money and a lot of new population--from everywhere, but, not least, from Quebec, where the radicalization and government takeover of the French speaking populace sent a wide swathe of the English speaking segment of the province to seek new climes in the late seventies.

You've got a lot of characters in Everybody Knows, but Toronto itself is the central unifying factor. A map of the city would be a great help in reading this book, because so much of it involves driving around through different neighborhoods, each with its own microclimate and history.

The police, as far as I can recall, are carryover coppers from Dirty Sweet, but you don't really need to know that. Each is coming from their own specific personal situation outside the crimes they are investigating and one excellent thing John has down is capturing the patter of their daily lives in between bouts of crime solving. In particular, the lore of the police force comes forward in the odd moment--tales handed down, which are wonderful nuggets kneaded into the whole.

This book doesn't really have the kind of plot that can be summarized in a paragraph or two. As with Dirty Sweet, I was impressed by how effectively the plates were all kept spinning. Mainly, the story revolves around pot, or more specifically, pot production and distribution in the Great Lakes region. There are quite a few ideas floating around in the book for those of a criminal persuasion, although beware, felons, there are a lot of disincentives for following this path. Not everybody ends up okay.

Although this does still seem like a guy's book, I have to say that the women in John's stories are always the more interesting to watch. The guys can be crafty and smart, but the women in adverse circumstances are really the ones who think outside the box.

One thing I've left out here is the humor. It is so dry, so deadpan that in a way I think you have to move into the novel's atmosphere before you get that much of the story is comic.

The obvious comparison is to Elmore Leonard, I think, but my hit in the moment on the difference is that Leonard's characters tend to be a bit dumber than McFetridge's. Some of McFetridge's characters are dumb, but mostly they're crafty and enterprising, and the fact that they are living on the lower end of the socio-economic scale is more random than blameworthy. They tend to be energetic and vital--it's maybe the cops who are a little depressed.

The next book in the series is Swap. I hear it's newly available on Kindle. As for me, I've got the hardback and I shouldn't think it would be awfully long before I get to this one, either. 


  1. It’s good that you noticed the motif of the shift of power in Canada, or at least of anglophone power, from Montreal to Toronto. On the one hand, that’s an important story not much told in Canadian writing, according to John. On the other, it quite naturally hits home, since, absent that shift. I might be writing this comment from Ville St. Laurent or Mile End rather than South Philadelphia.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home

  2. Yeah, I think you were the one who clued me on that particular moment in Canadian history.

  3. It’s worth noting that John said he did not set out to write a crime novel when wrote Dirty Sweet. Rather, he says, he just set out to write about Toronto as a city of opportunity.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"