By Dana King
John McFetridge has been an underappreciated gem in the world of crime fiction since his first book in the genre, Dirty Sweet, was published in 2006. (An earlier novel, Below the Line, was co-authored with Scott Albert and deals with the movie-making process, which can also be a crime, but not of the type under discussion today.) Dirty Sweet earned McFetridge comparisons to Elmore Leonard, though Linda Richards, writing in January Magazine, noted his voice is “colder and starker” than Leonard’s; others have cited a resemblance to the work of George V. Higgins. Three more novels of his “Toronto Series” followed: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (2008), Swap (Let it Ride in the US – 2009), and Tumblin’ Dice (2012) all followed to some extent the story of the Saints of Hell, a biker gang moving into more mainstream avenues of organized crime.
McFetridge’s newest novel is a departure. Black Rock is set in Montreal in 1970, during the Quebecois separatist movement. Bombs are going off all around the city, kidnappings are taking place, and Constable Eddie Dougherty is sent running everywhere as the police try to plug holes and keep the city under control. Dougherty would rather work with the Francophone detective in charge of the investigation into the murders of three young women, but finds himself stealing time to help there from his more official duties.
Dana King: Tell us about Black Rock.
John McFetridge: On the cover it says, “Montreal 1970. Not everyone wanted to give peace a chance.” In 1969 John and Yoko had their bed-in for peace in Montreal and recorded, “Give Peace a Chance,” but at the same time bombs were going off all over Montreal and three women were killed by the same man. In 1970 two men were kidnapped; a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte and a British trade commissioner, James Cross, and after Mr. LaPorte was murdered the army was called in. So it was a busy and conflicted place.
Black Rock follows a young, almost-rookie cop named Eddie Dougherty as he runs down the few leads on the serial killer. He’s involved because most of the police department is busy with the terrorism and one of the murder victims is the younger sister of someone Dougherty knew growing up in the mostly Irish working-class neighbourhood of Point St. Charles.
Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
I was ten years old when the events in the book took place and I’d always felt they’d passed me by and I was unaffected. I delivered the newspaper that had the huge headline, “LaPorte Killed,” and a picture of his body in the trunk of a car but I didn’t think it had made much of an impact. Mr. LaPorte was kidnapped a couple miles from my house and his body was also found a few miles away. I remember being in a department store (Miracle Mart) with my mother and having to go out into the parking lot and waiting while the bomb squad searched the place but still, I didn’t feel these events had any lasting effect.
But now my kids have ‘lock-down’ drills in school just like fire drills and bombs go off at the Boston Marathon and I realized I was affected and I wanted to look into it more and explore those feelings.
Still, I didn’t see a novel in these events until I found an obscure article about the serial killing that said young women were so afraid to go out the nightclubs were deserted. I spoke to my sister about that because she was twenty-one at the time and going to those clubs and she had no memory at all about a serial killer or the fear or any warnings or anything like that. The nightclubs were, as they always were in Montreal, hopping.
Then I became interested in the way the entire city, the province, the whole country had been riveted by the kidnappings and the murder of Mr. LaPorte; the army was called in, a special task force was formed of police departments made up all their “best men,” and it still dominates a lot of our politics today and yet the murders of these young women went by almost unnoticed.
So, there’s nothing too original about the idea of, “what is the value of a life,” but that’s where the idea really started to form and these historical events make a pretty good back-drop, I think.
How long did it take to write Black Rock, start to finish?
Two years. There was a little bit before that where I was reading books about the era its set (Mark Kurlansky’s, 1968: the year that rocked the world, David Browne’s, Fire and Rain: the lost story of 1970 and Jefferson R. Cowie’s, Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the death of the working class are particularly good non-fiction) but I wasn’t sure I could write a period piece.
Then I had to fit the fictional story into these events and that took a while. The book was then edited by some excellent people at ECW Press and fact-checked, even though it is a novel.
What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
Some of the characters in the book are real – three victims of the serial killer known as the “Vampire Killer” at the time, the politicians and other world figures who get a mention and so on but the main character, Eddie Dougherty, is based on my older brother. As I said, I was intimidated to be writing a period novel and I was doing a lot of research so I figured I would stay a little closer to home with the main character and his family. My brother joined the police force (the Mounties, not the city police) in 1968, the same year as Dougherty and I used some of his experiences as a rookie cop. In the novel the Dougherty family moved from a very urban environment to a suburban neighbourhood which follows my family moving from Ville Emard in Montreal to Greenfield Park in the suburbs. My father served in the navy from 1938 to 45 and so did Hugh Dougherty. The biggest difference is that my mother is from Nova Scotia, not New Brunswick, and doesn’t speak French. Dougherty’s mother is based on my Aunt Rolande, whose first language was French.
In his “Troubles Trilogy” Adrian McKinty has his main character, Sean Duffy, live in the house Adrian lived in growing up and I thought that was genius so I stole it and put Dougherty’s family in the house where I grew up.
In what time and place is Black Rock set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
Montreal in 1970. It’s very important. There are two storylines in the book: terrorism and serial killings. Both were—well, I don’t want to say, “becoming popular” at the time in North America, but that’s what was going on. Some of it is demographics, the baby boom generation entering adulthood, and some of it seems to just have been in the air.
How did Black Rock come to be published?
Black Rock is my fifth novel with ECW Press. I’m not sure what their problem is, but they keep coming back for more so I keep giving it to them. The Kirkus review of Black Rock said maybe this one would be the break-out book, so I guess we’re all still hoping.
Recent historical crime fiction has seen a decided uptick in recent years. James Ellroy, of course, has famously written of LA in the 40s and 50s, then the country as a whole in the 60s and 70s. For a while he was pretty much it. Now we have James Benn and his Billy Boyle series (set in World War II), Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope (also World War II), Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy books (Northern Ireland in the early 80s), Stuart Neville’s Ratlines (1960s Ireland). Reed Farrel Coleman takes Moe Prager back to 1967 in Onion Street. Black Rock takes place in Montreal in 1970. (This does not pretend to be a comprehensive list.) Why do you think this has become such a pronounced trend?
And the one that really got me thinking about writing a period piece, Charlie Stella’s, Johnny Porno. I think as we get older we realize how important an understanding of the past is in order to have any kind of understanding of the present.
You grew up as an Anglophone in Montreal. How did that affect the creation and development of Eddie Dougherty?
There is a bit of a trend in books about divided cultures to write from the POV of the “other.” McKinty’s main character in the Troubles Trilogy is a Catholic; Louise Penny’s, Inspector Gamache is French-Canadian; in Trevanian’s The Main, set in Montreal, it’s LaPointe (Trevanian is actually the American Rodney Whitaker).
But one of the things I found most interesting growing up in Montreal was the fact that so many families weren’t a single culture (the estimate is that 40% of Quebecois have Irish in their family tree). Sure, a famous book about Quebec is called Two Solitudes, but the truth is while there were two solitudes in Canada, Montreal was always very multi-cultural with people moving between the ‘solitudes.’ When I was a teenager in the 70s a lot of people singing along at the Bob Dylan concert had strong French accents and the opening act was Beau Dommage who had a lot of people singing along to the French lyrics with English accents.
I did want Dougherty to have an English name (and one that’s tough to pronounce in French, like mine is) because in the late 60s and early 70s was when the division was really starting to show and people were being asked to choose a single culture, something Dougherty (and many Montrealers) refuse to do—which I think is great.
What were some of the challenges and satisfactions in researching Black Rock?
One of the real satisfactions was going back and reading the newspapers I had delivered as a kid. At the time I read the sports sections, so that brought back a lot of memories—the early days of the Expos especially. What an exciting time. Now, I was reading the whole paper and seeing the time in quite a different light. One of the challenges in the book, I think, is making the attitude people had towards the bombings and riots believable to people today. I had to remind myself that someone who was the age I am now (early 50s) had at that time lived through (and likely served in) WWII.
The challenges were mostly in researching the serial killer. The more challenging it became the more I knew I should keep going.
Your books aren’t just set in Canada, they’re about Canada in many ways. Why have you chosen to keep your stories at home, so to speak, when so many of your compatriots set their books elsewhere?
One reason is that cliche line about the setting being a character, which I think is true, and I couldn’t have a main character I didn’t really know. I think it would jump out as an undeveloped character. And thank you for saying my books are about Canada, that’s really what I’m after.
On the surface Canada looks a lot like the USA but it’s really quite different. I think we make terrific neighbours but we always run the risk in Canada of being culturally overrun by America – not in any intentional way, just because America is so much bigger. We watch American movies and TV shows, we read American books and magazines, we follow American news and sports. So I think it’s important for Canadians to tell Canadian stories.
What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
I do like all of the writers you’ve mentioned: James Ellroy, Reed Farrel Coleman, Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Charlie Stella. I’ve only read one James Benn and I haven’t read any any Susan Elia MacNeal but now I’m going to look her up. Right now I’m reading Robert Edric’s The Monster’s Lament, set in London just as World War Two is ending, which involves organized crime and also Aleister Crowley. But I also like what I guess is kind of the ‘classic rock’ version of literature, the whole John Cheever, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro school of 20th century realism. I always prefer reading stories that I believe could actually happen. And I like stories with insight into the characters.
Who are your greatest influences?
Reading Elmore Leonard gave me the confidence to think that the characters I knew something about could carry a novel – everyday guys, really. And then every other writer in the world…
Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
For my previous novels I was a pantser but for this one I made a detailed timeline of the historical events I wanted to include. Not just the bombs and October Crisis stuff in Montreal, but Black September, Kent State, the Manson Family trial, the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Mitrone in Uruguay, and even things like Woodstock and the Festival Express in Canada. And, of course, the actual murders of the Vampire Killer. I wanted all of those events to take place on the correct dates to really get across a feeling for the time.
Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
Five novels in I’m a little more inclined to throw things into a first draft knowing there will be revisions – and I’ll get help from people on those revisions. Also, I’m now a little more prepared for that period about two thirds of the way through when I think it’s falling apart and can’t be saved. I still feel that way but because it happens with every novel I’m a little more confident I can work through it.
If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
I really like the standard, “Write the book you want to read.” That’s all I ever do. Of course, if you want to have a big hit and make a lot of money, then I haven’t got a clue.
Why don’t Canadian teams win the Stanley Cup anymore?
This requires a long and complicated answer but I’m just going to say up until now it was because of socialized medicine so you better watch out as the playing field is being leveled.
What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
That’s a good question. I’m always so happy that anyone is taking the time to talk to me about my book I never really think about the details of the conversation. So I’ll have to think about it now… Okay, here’s one: You went to university part-time for ten years and studied creative writing, you were writing for over twenty years before you were published and you still don’t make enough money at it to call it a job but you keep doing it – is it worth it?
What’s the answer?
What are you working on now?
The continuing adventures of Constable Eddie Dougherty. Montreal 1972 and an American draft dodger is found murdered…