A MOTET, Keith Maillard tells us on the very first page of his latest novel, is an unaccompanied choral composition based on a Latin sacred text and designed to be performed in the Roman Catholic service, chiefly at Vespers.
Those readers who built themselves an idea of what Maillard's writing is like from his American myth epics like Alex Driving South might be pulled up short by this classical music reference. But, ease up, worried reader: power and madness made in the USA is still at the heart of Maillard's creativity. He has just found another filter for it. That self-destructive energy, matched with a mystery based on a l6th-century Netherlandish heresy and its attendant music, makes for an odd contrast, but that is what moves Maillard's Motet. His motet revolves around a quartet of characters, in which the long arm of coincidence plays a determinant role. The foursome features Paul Crane, a middle-aged, somewhat distracted music teacher, recently divorced, who leads an isolated but rich inner life in Vancouver. There is his daughter Wendy, a perfect, pre-Raphaelite image, all blond hair and glowing skin, on the very cusp of sexual awakening; she plays the viola da gamba with a strength and feeling beyond her years. Into their life comes Katherine, a refugee from the American 1960s, burnt out, suicidal, a saxophone player who could never find the courage to get up on stage and blow and who, when we first meet her, is inhabiting a basement apartment in Vancouver. Katherine is on the run - as well she should be -from Steven Beuhl, a kick-ass rockand-roll drummer who has kicked her ass more than once in more than one way. He is an American refugee too, in Canada via Atlanta and Boston. Drugs and violence, not politics, seem to be behind his move to the True North. His rock-and-roll band brought him into contact with a shadowy figure called Lyons, a Vietnam vet, drug dealer, procurer of sweet little girls - a rather one-dimensional version of evil. Once Maillard has established his people, he sets them in motion via a long series of flashbacks and shifting narratives. Now, when you read the words "shifting narrative" in a review, you automatically think, "Uh-oh, experimental novel," but despite its devices, Motet is really a straight-ahead story. It's just that Maillard has such masses of information and sensation to get across to us; the only way he can transmit the immediacy of his characters' lives is to put us inside their heads.
All four characters do not physically meet until twothirds of the way through the book. In Vancouver, once she meets him through his daughter, Katherine immediately sets her mind on conquering Paul Crane. For her, Crane is tolerance, patience, a bearlike but friendly and fatherly physical presence. Despite - or because of - his rich imaginative life based around tracking down a mysterious 16th-century piece of music, Paul Crane is a formal man, something of a spectator at his own life, Nevertheless, soon she and Crane settle into a domestic routine that seems at odds with the chaos of what we know of her life with Steven Beuhl.
All the while, Katherine is flashing back to the past as she walks through the omnipresent Vancouver rain or lies in the big comfortable bed in Paul Crane's house. That past is a whirlwind of sex and drugs and power games, some rather vicious, and her memories contain some juicy scenes that might put a wellneeded kick into this spring's CanLit list. She is clearly not over Steven Beuhl or, more accurately, not over the way she was when she was with him. It is inevitable that her feverish energy and that of Wendy, Paul's daughter, complement each other. Wendy is a luminous child, a musical prodigy, who is sick and tired of playing the good-little-girl role, though she does not quite know how else to be. She is the second of two lionesses caged up in Paul Crane's house.
Into this menagerie steps the fourth member of Motet's quartet, Steven Beuhl. Little by little, and somewhat confusedly, we learn of the murders of Peter, one of Steven's band members back in Boston, and of Lyons. The murders are presented in the manner of jigsaw puzzles, one confused piece of memory at a time, and by the time Katherine realizes, at last, who the murderer is, we have grown a little distant from them.