Dubbed “Canada’s answer to Elmore Leonard” by the Toronto Star, Canadian mystery author John McFetridge has a voice that is “colder, starker than Leonard’s,” according to January Magazine. His work has been called a “noir love song to Toronto” by Publishers Weekly.
Speaking to January Magazine, McFetridge remarked, “My books aren’t mysteries with a crime being solved, they’re about ongoing crimes. I work from character and theme. Very basic themes.”
McFetridge includes some of the same characters in his crime novels sent in Toronto, but does not have an ongoing series protagonist. In his recently released Let It Ride, he “bundles love, lust, avarice, ambition, perfidy, betrayal and drug dealing north of the border, all drenched in noir,” according to a Kirkus Reviews critic.
John, it is a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime.
My wife jokes that I married her for Canadian citizenship because when we met I was living in Montreal, where I grew up, and Quebec was in the middle of its fight to separate from Canada. I’m not really interested in politics and that had nothing to do with our move to Toronto, but that’s where I live now and where I set my books.
What things about Toronto make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Toronto is really a young city going through a lot of changes. It’s very close to the US, but not American, half the people who live here were born somewhere else and came here for the opportunities so it’s really a place that’s looking forward. Those things make it ideal for crime fiction.
Did you consciously set out to use Toronto as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
A little of both. I started writing about people in Toronto and the more I dug into them the more I realized they were, to a large extent, defined by their location. Immigrant children here have entirely different lives than if their families hadn’t moved. Even me, coming from close by in Montreal am different now than I would be if I hadn’t moved here.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Yes, I’m very conscious of location when I write. The setting of every scene is important to me and the overall effect as well. Toronto, like many cities, has its issues around gentrification, so that’s an obvious one, but it is a city of many small neighbourhoods and I like to visit as many as I can.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they native, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, boosters? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonists?
As a few reviews have complained, I have a lot of protagonists . I think the fact that my books are made up of a large ensemble cast is largely because of the setting. I could never settle on a single person to have represent Toronto and the city is in constant flux. So, I have some characters who have grown up here (though usually in Canada even people who have grown up here think of themselves as what we call hyphenated Canadians, Irish-Canadian, Italian-Canadian, Indo-Canadian) and many recent arrivals.
How has the local reaction been to your works?
The reaction has been good. My books are usually on the gritty, grimier end of the crime scale, more urban American than English village, and Toronto used to have the nickname, “Toronto the Good,” so a lot of the reaction has been, “Toronto like you haven’t seen it before,” but I will insist my books are Toronto as at least some of it really is.
I have made many, many goofs but I have an excellent editor and copy editor who both live in Toronto so not many have made it into the final version of the book. I did once accidentally predict the future – I had a scene in which a biker gang’s clubhouse was demolished and a condo building put up and that really happened – though with the amount of condos going up all over Toronto it was a safe bet, Still, in my book the bikers themselves made a deal with crooked cops to raid the clubhouse so they could sell the property for a higher price as the neighbourhood was now rid of its “criminal element,” and I don’t think that part is real. I’m pretty sure it’s not.
Of the novels you have written set in this location, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
A lot of Torontonians like to quote Peter Ustinov who said, “Toronto is like New York run by the Swiss,” and I have a scene where a cop is complaining that they never get budget increases to take on organized crime because the city likes to pretend there is no organized crime and he says, “Whoever said Toronto was New York run by the Swiss, I’d like to wring his neck.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Oh yes, many writers influenced me in the use of setting. I realized that all my favourite writers are associated with their cities – Ian Rankin in Edinburgh (and Al Guthrie for a completely different Edinburgh), Elmore Leonard in Detroit, John Burdett in Bangkok, Louise Penny in Three Pines, Quebec, James Ellroy in LA (and then all of America in the underworld trilogy), George V. Higgins in Boston, and so many more.
For the first time I’m heading a little bit outside of Toronto, about a hundred miles north to a casino on an Indian reservation I’m calling Huron Woods, so it’s out of my cops’ jurisdiction, but some of the criminals who’ve been in my books are looking to extend their territory.
Thanks so much for joining us on Scene of the Crime, John