IN A Sense of Honour (Hounslow, 201 pages, $15.95 paper) Roy French has crammed the IRA, the SAS, the RCMP, the CSIS, the Mossad and something called the Sons of Palestine, as well as the Canadian prime minister, an airplane hijacking, and the city of Brampton, Ontario, into a wildly improbable blow'em-up terrorist thriller. It did keep me reading for an hour or so, but I suspect true fans of the genre will immediately recognize a clone when they see one. The writing is clumsy and fraught with cliches, the punctuation is disturbing, and the whole production is decidedly derivative.
Three other genre books make use of their authors' career experiences (or so one gathers) to bend the boundaries of the mystery/thriller in interesting ways and with varying degrees of success. Rick Blechta sets Knock on Wood (Castlefield, 295 pages, $23.95 cloth) in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County; his hero, Chris McKessock, is a part-time semi-pro saxophone player and highschool substitute teacher. The plot is rather ordinary, having to do with a drug ring based on a blackmail scheme, and the prose is rough in places, but it's a workmanlike effort that boasts two or three convincing characters and some good local colour.
A Very Palpable Hit (Douglas & McIntyre, 259 pages, $24.95 cloth) is by Douglas Marshall, whose name will be familiar to mature readers of this magazine. Intended as the first in a series, the novel introduces the weatherbeaten news editor of a major Toronto daily, Rudge McCracken, and pits him against the complicated motives of a clutch of literary folk assembled for a whodunit weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. There's a make-believe murder to start things off, of course (and of course another murder that's not in the script); soon Rudge and the woman he's just begun an affair with, a classy media photographer named Meredith Hughes, are in the thick of a homicidal conspiracy.
The whole business is a hoot, though with its extremely large cast and wealth of detail it takes a while to get started. Marshall is witty; he has the whole Toronto cultural scene at his fingertips, and his send-ups and roman-a-clef touches are mercilessly sneaky and apt. The ins and outs of the newspaper game are worth savouring, too, and once the novel sorts itself out, it moves to a satisfying conclusion. Rudge is an original, not an imitation. I wish him a long literary life and many more adventures.
The Truth about Marvin Kalish (ben-Simon, 280 pages, $26.95 cloth, $16.95 paper), by Martin Samuel Cohen, manages to be an entertaining mystery at the same time that it treats some serious emotional and spiritual themes with skill and tact. The Marvin Kalish of the title is a young New York City stand-up comic; someone is taking potshots at him. Rather quickly the reader is involved with a woman who believes she is Marvin's estranged birth mother, an astute, longsuffering NYPD detective who tries to make sense out of events, a refugee pharmacist with a curious artistic obsession, and a handful of other memorable characters. By the time Cohen wraps things up, the novel has travelled from New York to Italy, back to 1940s Germany, and forward again to a startling, provocative climax.
What gathers force beneath the book's richly intricate but seemingly effortless plot is a haunting undercurrent of mysticism. Medieval art, modem history, and religious prophecy meet and join; the subject that surfaces, that ties speculative thought to action, is no less than the birth of the messiah. An ambitious undertaking, and Cohen's prose -funny, learned, detailed, densely evocative of place and several levels of culture - is up to the task. Though The Truth about Marvin Kalish could be pruned of some wordiness and repetition, the overall effects of this odd mystery novel are both engrossing and quite moving.
Finally, a pair of short novels made even shorter by an extremely low ratio of black print to white page. The first, sing me no more (Press Gang, 125 pages, $12.95 paper), by Lynette Dueck, is a straightforward, bluntly worded memoir of abuse and recovery. The personal history of the heroine Nemah, given in short chapters of third-person, present-tense narration, contains one episode after another of emotional and physical violence (a good deal of it sexual); there are graphic accounts of childhood terror, abortion, drug and alcohol dependency, and prostitution. The writing is competent and the experiences Dueck relates certainly feel authentic, but something is missing here, and whatever it is makes the reading of sing me no more a curiously unexciting, unaffecting duty.
Obsessions (Mercury, 94 pages, $11.95 paper), by Daniel Jones, is more like a chore - though I have nothing but respect for the scrupulous clarity of the novel's prose and the intelligence behind its vision. In a series of brief vignettes, often no more than a few sentences in length, Jones explores the world of a nameless character pursued by the demons of psychosis. The voice that records the hero's phobias and obsessive states speaks relentlessly in the second person (as in "You do not step on cracks. You are afraid of falling through. Of what is down below."). Through three sections (titled "Withdrawing ... .. Obsessions," and "The Dead"), each bracketed with epigraphs from literary and psychoanalytic authorities, the novel creeps steadily from bleakness to paralysis to the void.
Jones is evidently a craftsman, and he's put his considerable technical skill at the service of a powerful imagining of psychological horror. The whole project, however, strikes me as somewhat pretentious - or maybe just obsessive. By the last page "It is the end of the world, and you are dead" (this is the entire last page) - all the exquisitely minimal fragments have become repetitious and, I have to confess, tiresome.