Auxiliary cop Margo Jamieson’s discovery of a nasty note in a dead man’s golf jacket sends her to local historian John Larssen for help. The conflicting agendas of an old prospector, a rich eco-activist, a couch-surfing teen and a mess of misplaced desire take them behind the picturesque façade of Smithers, a mountain town in northern British Columbia. This is the nineties, before cell phones and the internet, and they need to rely on paper files, face-to-face meetings and old-fashioned telephones to unravel a tangled web of festering grudges, phony mineral claims, blackmail, and murder. It may be spring, but what the melting snow reveals brings death in this first mystery from a seasoned poet, novelist and short story writer.
Creekstone Press 2014
Trade paperback, 242 pages
Price: $18; digital $8
Ebook (ISBN: 978-0-9783195-8-8) available at:
Reviews and Reflections
Caroline Woodward at Goodreads.com
Shafted: A Mystery is a departure in genre writing for author Sheila Peters, well-respected in Canadian literary circles for her published works in poetry, short fiction and most recently, The Taste of Ashes, a gritty and gripping novel set in Guatemala, Vancouver and Smithers, B.C.
The small and vibrant town of Smithers, B.C. makes another appearance in this book and is, in fact, a character of sorts as all well-written mystery settings are, which places this book in a new wave of Canadian mysteries from large and small publishers where the once-pejorative words “local” and “regional” are applied to tasty, specifically spiced and culturally authentic writing in the same way those words have been used in a laudatory way in the world of cuisine for several decades, and rightly so. The best-selling mysteries set in Three Pines, Quebec by Louise Penny or in Kootenay Landing, B.C. by Deryn Collier are two that quickly come to mind. Collier, like Peters, is particularly brilliant at deftly using local details of setting, cuisine, the slightly nosy neighbours who truly have your back, and the vicious local power struggles which can turn deadly in a way that is utterly authentic.
I grew up in a small rural community and have preferred to live in them ever since so my nose quickly detects those authors who ladle on the local detail but without the depth of relationships, the true intimacy of life in a close-knit community. Local “colour” when plopped onto a formulaic genre is still formula-driven fast-food writing with a bit of well-worn sauce, not nearly as satisfying as the slow food served by those who grow and know their own local ingredients. Mysteries are my brain candy, the genre I most love to read to relax and to sink into another world’s sights and smells and tastes and voices, as experienced by the observant sleuth or any reasonable facsimile on his/her way to settling things so that justice prevails (or a satisfying facsimile of justice).
Another interesting aspect of this well-written book is the choice of April as the month in which all the action takes place. April in Smithers will resonate with many readers who experience four seasons of the year as, without a doubt, April is the cruelest month. It gets our hopes up for spring, surely just around the corner. Peters delivers April’s uncontrollable run-off, collective mental teetering on the edge, freezing treachery and the first beautiful dry, bare patch in the yard with true panache. If I was an Aussie reader, I’d be just as fascinated, in the same way that I am when a writer from Down Under gives me prolonged drought and a couple of murders to ponder in such a way that I’m thirsty after just a few pages.
So, what we have in April in Smithers is an era when party lines on the rural telephone exchange still existed and the internet is barely a rumour.There are property development issues afoot so astute mystery readers know we need to follow the money, for starters. Into this mix, strides and stumbles the fatigued protagonist, Margo Jamieson, a part-time auxiliary cop and stage manager/janitor at the high school theatre auditorium, a young woman with a big heart and a maternal eye on a troubled student who is homeless, vulnerable and unpredictable. There is also a fabulously wealthy, thanks to a lottery win, eco-activist, a hometown girl who abandoned a promising career in the U.S. to come home to Smithers and there to fund a think tank with visiting international scientists to solve environmental problems. She also wants to create a local wilderness park, much to the displeasure of some residents who expected her to fork over wads of her cash for their assorted causes instead of this park business, where local logging and mining jobs might be lost.
The geological and political elements in this mystery are fascinating; both well-researched and highly credible as this conflict is currently happening all over North and South America. This brings us to another interesting character, a reclusive, handsome geologist or mining company fixer or scout, or all of the above…the stories vary according to the purveyor of the gossip but he’s a hometown son as well and he, as the surviving member of his family, has a stake in the rubble left behind from their once-thriving mine in the proposed park zone. Another unsavoury character is an an old prospector, the kind who snoops around other people’s claims and digs up dirt in all forms, also a former swimming champion and fading beauty with a massive mean streak, a charming and philosophical cafe owner, a beefy and brusque female RCMP officer dealing with a vindictive, misogynist supervisor (another situation ripped from much more recent headlines as women serving as RCMP stand up in the new millennium and speak publicly about the nasty unprofessional jerks they have had to work with for years in a culture which blatantly condones sexism), and an appealing local historian who works as a telecommunications technician. I could go on with the list but what I’m trying to say is that, as in the best theatre ensembles, there are no small roles, only small players, and every character created by Sheila Peters is immensely memorable, whether they are on the page for a few scenes or reappear as major players throughout the entire book.
Who is using a dry cleaning business to send poison pen notes to Smithereens from all walks of life (or at least those who can afford to get their clothes dry-cleaned?)Who amongst this cast of characters would stoop to using a pistol on an old man and a homemade bomb to cover up their mistakes, nearly killing two innocent people in the ensuing melee? What is connected to whom and why? It’s a very satisfying read which kept me guessing right to the “reveal”. Now what I would like is a series of mysteries set in Smithers by Sheila Peters, one set in each month of the year. There is the grim fact of the Highway of Tears to investigate, for starters. And I would like at least one book to include the wonderful bookstore in Smithers and the great music festival too! Shafted: A Mystery is recommended reading any month of the year.
Read an excerpt here
At first, the note to Charles Bateman looked like someone’s idea of an April fool jibe. Cabin fever. Most people in British Columbia live on the coast where April is cherry blossom springtime. But in the mountain towns along the interior highway of the northwest, April is a jumble of contradictions. Daylight finally lasts past suppertime, but piles of dirty snow are slow to melt in the shadowed alleys. Ecstatic skiers descend from the mountains looking like sunburnt gods while restless tree planters, waiting for cutblocks to clear, clog the laundromats with dogs and dreadlocks. Small town kids come home from university with tattoos and jewellery in strange places. Locals who should know better let down their guard and leave home without a jacket only to find themselves shivering in a sudden squall.
Those who keep track of these things know that it’s when the pressure of winter finally lets up that fragile tempers are most likely to crack, that the unstable come apart. When the ground is laid bare, people are wise to tread carefully. The melting snow often reveals things better left buried.
It turned out that Charles Bateman wasn’t the first to get a note. They had been showing up like a winter’s worth of dog turds. Some were irritating. The town librarian found one tucked in a cloth book bag. Libraries should pay their own way! Still jubilant after winning an increase to the library’s budget from the usually stingy town council, she tossed it without a second thought.
Others were nasty. The new pharmacist, who’d almost succeeded in forgetting he was Jewish, found a dark green scrap in his jacket pocket. No words, just a swastika and strand of barbed wire. His co-workers wondered why, after apparently settling in nicely, he decided not to sign up for the store’s slow pitch team and started looking for a job down south. A young man from one of the town’s more vocal pro-life families shook out his sleeping bag to discover a drawing of a baby on a blue slip of paper, a knife in it, and the single word, Hypocrite! His girlfriend, who he figured must have blabbed, went into the emergency room the next day with a broken arm.
When the whole story came out, people wondered how many notes had been furtively crumpled before anyone could ask about the beautiful paper the notes were written on. How many still lurked in a New Year’s Eve dress or a treasured baby blanket? How many waited until the special tablecloth was unfolded to poison a Thanksgiving gathering or a fiftieth anniversary tea?