Death by Misadventure
by Ian McKercher
Review by Bob Nielson
The suspicious Ottawa death of a Norwegian major-general. A hit and run during a December blizzard that shuts down Ottawa. A harrowing sleigh ride across a Gatineau lake. A handful of dead military men. Those are just some of the twists that will keep readers glued to Death By Misadventure, the latest Frances McFadden mystery by Glebe novelist Ian McKercher.
McKercher’s previous three novels (The Underling, The Incrementalist and Carbon Copy) are mainly set in Ottawa in the 1930s and 40s. All have the delightful Frances McFadden, secretary to the Governor of the fledgling Bank of Canada, as their central character. The first two books were historical fiction – coming-of-age stories in which Frances, like the Bank itself, matures quickly amid the challenges of the Depression and the Second World War. Carbon Copy overlaid the murder-mystery genre onto the historical fiction.
In Death By Misadventure, our hero is still with the Bank, which has grown into a major Canadian institution, just as Frances has grown into a supremely capable secretary. Actually, to say that fails to do her justice. She is a great deal more than the word “secretary” implies. Frances has huge responsibilities and finds herself rubbing shoulders with people from all strata of Ottawa society, including politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats. Friends in the RCMP, the Ottawa Police and Military Intelligence quickly learn what a useful ally she is with her keen eye, sharp intelligence and wealth of contacts.
It’s one of the quiet achievements of the novel that Frances’s job always seems demanding and interesting. It’s easy to imagine a bored secretary jumping at the chance to do some sleuthing as an antidote to paper-pushing, but it’s not like that. Granted, her workplace is organized and responsible, with trusted colleagues working harmoniously. The dark and dangerous world that her sideline takes her into, on the other hand, is full of lies and intrigue.
At the core of this novel, set in December 1942, is the death of Carl Gustav Fleischer, a Norwegian major-general whose apparent suicide raises questions that lead investigators down unpredictable pathways. Frances is called upon to help, but her demanding job means she is constantly juggling commitments.
The fast pace of Frances’s life is in keeping with the pace of the novel; the action starts on the first page, and it doesn’t slow down. How did Fleischer die? What’s his backstory? Why are Russian and American spies interested in him? Is there a conspiracy to hide the truth? Frances discovers it’s a very dangerous world for those trying to answer these questions.
If you’ve read McKercher’s earlier novels, you’ll know that the prose is crisp and restrained. The dialogue carries the story. He doesn’t tell you all that much – he lets the characters tell you. Your knowledge of what they do is largely embedded in what they say. That’s a treat, because the dialogue is rich and varied, with a lot of witty banter, giving the novel a pleasantly light-hearted quality that balances the dark tale of greed and murder.
The story is firmly anchored in Ottawa in December. You can almost feel the crunch of snow underfoot. There are many references to Norway and a strong sense of the war affecting everything everywhere, but Ottawa is our stage, and we are keenly aware of where we are.
In the end, the case is basically solved. I say “basically” because not everything is cut and dried. We learn how Fleischer died, but one mystery leads to another, and they all lead to larger questions that lack simple answers. This is wartime, and there are a lot of state secrets to be kept. The reader, like Frances, gets to know enough to feel satisfied, but a world caught up in a global conflict remains somewhat shadowy – not a place for moral certainties. Fleischer himself is a complex character. Even the killers and thieves in this story act from motives that often involve loyalty and patriotism. As the opening quotes for the novel tell us: “There are many ways to be virtuous or to fail at it” and “The difference between life and death depended on miniscule, seemingly unimportant things, and the smallest decisions. . .”
Death By Misadventure is well worth reading. It keeps you interested and keeps you guessing. You’ll feel comfortable in the hands of a seasoned novelist who understands how to spin a tale and how to take you to another time and place.
The novel retails for $25. Contact the author at (613) 235-4863 or email@example.com, or local bookstores.
Bob Nielson is a former resident of Findlay Avenue currently residing in Jambaroo, Australia.