Friday, April 16, 2010

Z is for Mark Zuehlke's HANDS LIKE CLOUDS

And so here we are... after more than six months of near-weekly alphabeticalised crime fiction blog posts, our little band of merry bloggers finds ourselves at the end of a long and winding road (hat tip to Messrs McCartney and Lennon).

Congratulations to fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, who sparked such a fantastic series which has each week seen bloggers from around the world writing about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet. This week, we find ourselves at the turn of the letter "Z".

I was tempted to harken back to an old childhood favourite, and find a way to wangle the legendary Zorro into a crime and thriller themed blog, but in the end I've decided to take a look at a Canadian crime writer who isn't that well known (for his crime writing at least) behind those borders; Mark Zuehlke - and in particular his debut crime novel, HANDS LIKE CLOUDS.

I first became aware of Zuehlke when I saw him at a Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards evening at the Vancouver Public Library this time two years ago. My partner and I were staying with a friend in the city at the time, as a month-long stopover from our yearlong travels through South, Central, and North America. I'd fluked upon a notice about the evening when I'd been at the library earlier that week; the shortlists for the 2008 Arthur Ellis Awards were being announced, and several highly-regarded British Columbia-based mystery writers would be in attendance, including William Deverell, and Zuehlke (neither of whom I'd heard of before that evening) - both previous winners.

Zuehlke is a former journalist who has turned his hand to writing acclaimed non-fiction works delving into Canadian military history, and an award-winning mystery series starring Vancouver Island coroner Elias McCann. His first of three mysteries starring McCann, HANDS LIKE CLOUDS, won the 2001 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, and this was the book I managed to get my hands on a week after I met Zuehlke - coincidentally purchased from a great little bookstore near Victoria, on Vancouver Island.

Set in the windswept village of Tofino on Vancouver Island's west coast, the book was the first in a series following reluctant coroner Elias McCann's investigations into mysterious deaths. Since then Zuehlke has completed two other Elias McCann novels: CARRY TIGER TO A MOUNTAIN (2002) and SWEEP LOTUS(2004), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.

The publisher's blurb for HANDS LIKE CLOUDS states: "When environmental warrior Ira Connaught turns up hanging by the neck from an ancient rainforest cedar overlooking the wasteland of a clear-cut on Clayoquot Sound, everyone seems content to declare his death a suicide. The tree spiker won't be missed by loggers, Tofino's RCMP detachment, or by many environmentalists who applauded his goals but condemned his tactics. For reluctant community coroner Elias McCann, Ira's death looks increasingly like a murder.

Elias is no forensic pathologist, no doctor. A quirk in BC law enables anyone of good community standing to be appointed local coroner. But RCMP Sergeant Gary Danchuk does not believe that Elias meets even the quirk in the law. Danchuk remains convinced - against all evidence - that McCann murdered his wife, Merriam, two years earlier in order to clear the way for his love affair with Vhanna Chan. Hands Like Clouds is the first in a series of mysteries revolving around the troubled life of Elias McCann, son of a remittance man and local coroner."

You can read the first chapter here, or by clicking on the image above.

I really enjoyed HANDS LIKE CLOUDS, and would be keen to read Zuehlke's other two books (if it was easier to get my hands on them down here in New Zealand). McCann is an interesting and original protagonist, and Zuehlke did a great job wrapping up a decent mystery in a very well-evoked setting. Even from my short experience of them, I knew British Columbia's Gulf Islands are places of rugged beauty and interesting characters, and Zuehlke captures this marvellously, along with the historic and contemporary tensions and clashes between the environmentalists and longtime industries like loggers.

Two years on from reading HANDS LIKE CLOUDS, to be honest I can't remember who it was who killed Connaught, but the quirky McCann (and his relationship with Vhanna Chan), along with some of Zuehlke's other characters, and the vivid setting, have all stuck with me. You are definitely transported to the Gulf Islands in the book - not only can you 'see' the natural environment, you can almost feel, hear, smell, and taste it as well.

From memory, the mystery plot may seem a little slow-moving at times for those who prefer their crime fiction of the Linwood Barclay/James Patterson speedy page-turning style, but this is more than compensated for by the rich characters and settings in HANDS LIKE CLOUDS.

Something different for crime fiction fans, and an enjoyable read.

Have you read any of Mark Zuehlke's work (history or mystery fiction)? Do you like crime fiction set outside of the big cities? Have you ever been to the Gulf Islands? Thoughts and comments welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Craig - Thanks for this review and introduction to Zuehlke. He's not an author with whom I was familiar, but the book sounds very interesting, and, since you were kind enough to provide a link, I sneaked a peak at the first chapter. I'm going to add this one to my TBR list.