Forty Words for Sorrow
When four teenagers go missing in the small northern town of Algonquin Bay, the extensive police investigation comes up empty. Everyone is ready to give up except Detective John Cardinal, an all-too-human loner whose persistence only serves to get him removed from Homicide. Haunted by a criminal secret in his own past, and hounded by a special investigation into corruption on the force, Cardinal is on the brink of losing his career and his family.
Then the mutilated body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is pulled out of an abandoned mineshaft. And only Cardinal is willing to consider the horrific truth: that this quiet town is home to the most vicious of serial killers. With the media, the provincial police and his own department questioning his every move, Cardinal follows increasingly tenuous threads towards the unthinkable. Time isn’t only running out for him, but for another young victim, tied up in a basement wondering how and when his captors will kill him.
Evoking the Canadian winter and the hearts of the killers and cops in icily realistic prose, Giles Blunt has produced a masterful crime novel.
It gets dark early in Algonquin Bay. Take a drive up Airport Hill at four o’ clock on a February afternoon, and when you come back half an hour later the streets of the city will glitter below you in the dark like so many runways. The forty-sixth parallel may not be all that far north; you can be much farther north and still be in the United States, and even London, England, is a few degrees closer to the North Pole. But this is Ontario, Canada, we’re talking about, and Algonquin Bay in February is the very definition of winter. Algonquin Bay is snowbound, Algonquin Bay is quiet, Algonquin Bay is very, very cold.
Read the evocative opening of Giles Blunt’s novel and you may begin to understand why Tony Hillerman says this is the novel he wishes he’d written. Keep reading, and you may wonder why other authors haven’t joined the vicarious narrative line. With devastating precision, Blunt effortlessly weaves together strands of lives both led and taken in this tiny Canadian town, limning a hauntingly paradoxical picture of isolation and community, two sides of a fragile bulwark against violence.
John Cardinal was taken off homicide investigation after a fruitless and expensive quest for 13-year-old Katie Pine, a Chippewa girl who disappeared from the nearby reservation. After months of insisting that Katie was no runaway, Cardinal receives the cold comfort of vindication in the form of Katie’s corpse, discovered in an abandoned mine shaft. But the case, when reopened, becomes a Pandora’s box of horror. Katie’s body is only the first to be found, as Cardinal uncovers a pattern that links her death to those of two other children. When another boy is reported missing, Cardinal knows he is in a race against time to find the killer (so trite a phrase, while technically accurate, does radical injustice to Blunt’s razor-sharp plot and eerily pragmatic balance between the cop and his prey).
His new partner, Lise Delorme, is trying to uncover her own pattern. Drafted by the RCMP to find proof that Cardinal has been accepting money from drug runner Kyle Corbett to derail the Mounties’ investigations (three attempted busts good for absolutely nothing), she sifts through the minutiae of Cardinal’s life. Proud father, loving husband, dedicated officer—at what price has this edifice been constructed? Suffice it to say that Cardinal’s past and present link him in ironic counterpoint to those people for whom he is inevitably the bearer of bad tidings, leaving them “trying to recognize each other through the smoke and ashes” of grief.
Blunt has created a world in which every conversation can seem as ominous as the moan of the wind and the bullet-like report of shifting lake ice (“It was a new art form for Delorme, picking shards of fact from the exposed hearts of the bereaved. She looked at Cardinal for help, but he said nothing. He thought, “Get used to it.”). But it is also a world whose bleak landscape is touched with unexpected humor. Witness this description of one of the many minor, but always beautifully detailed, characters who populate the novel’s pages: “Arthur ‘Woody’ Wood was not in the burglary business to enhance his social life. Like all professional burglars, he went to great lengths to avoid meeting people on the job. At other times, well, Woody was as sociable as the next fellow.”
Part police procedural, part psychological thriller, part exploration of a region’s landscape and people, the novel is an astonishing, powerful hybrid—worthy of far more than a mere 40 words of praise. —Kelly Flynn