The Keys of My Prison

Broken Pencil - - Book Reviews -

Frances Shelly Wees, 187 pgs , Véhicule Press, ve­hiculepress.com,$14.95

The Keys of My Prison de­serves to be el­e­vated to a clas­sic of Canadian lit­er­a­ture. Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1956, it has been out of print since 1966. Hope­fully this new edi­tion, part of Véhicule’s Ric­o­chet Books im­print, which fea­tures vin­tage Canadian crime nov­els, will bring Frances Shelly Wees to be­lated promi­nence.

Like many a good mys­tery or thriller, the story be­gins with a man in a coma. Wees’ abil­ity is soon ap­par­ent in her de­scrip­tion of the hos­pi­tal day nurse: “Ab­sorbed in count­ing pulse­beats, she for­got to cover that inner self of hers, the cu­ri­ous, en­vi­ous self that was so ob­vi­ous in spite of the cer­tainty of her bear­ing, the crisp­ness of her uni­form, the brassy smooth per­fec­tion of her dark-blond hair...” Mi­nor char­ac­ters come to life in a para­graph or two, ready to of­fer a fresh per­spec­tive or a new pos­si­bil­ity.

The ma­jor char­ac­ters ar­rive in the same bright colours. When Rafe, the cen­tral char­ac­ter, wakes up, he has am­ne­sia and is so changed he seems like a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son, even to him­self as he learns how he is sup­posed to be. The premise is sim­ple enough but it is built upon pa­tiently, con­fi­dently, with ger­mane or es­sen­tial back­story and from com­pet­ing emo­tion­ally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally con­vinc­ing per­spec­tives. Am­ne­siac Rafe is rogu­ish, yet we like him and can see his point of view in spite of our­selves. Rafe’s wife, Julie, is tragic and com­plex, shrewd and naive at once.

“...You’re a damned pretty girl but I wouldn’t have mar­ried you. You’re not the kind I go for. You’re lit­tle and scared and soft and easy. I never did like that kind of wo­man. I like them with guts.”

Af­ter a mo­ment Julie said, “Do you? What colour guts, blonde or brunette?”

“Well,” he said. He laughed. “Well. Maybe I mis­judged you.”

Julie’s watch­ful Scottish aunt, Edith, is the story’s Cassandra and also re­veals the fam­ily’s dark past. Robin is a book­ish, con­flicted friend who both di­rects and mud­dies our sus­pi­cions. There is a con­sta­ble and po­lice psy­chol­o­gist who reminded me of Archie Good­win and Nero Wolfe; the mys­tery’s feints and rev­e­la­tions also reminded me of good Rex Stout. In an online review, Brian Busby com­pared the novel favourably to av­er­age Mar­garet Mil­lar; I will now fi­nally get around to read­ing Mil­lar to see if her av­er­age could really be as good as this mar­vel­lous book. (Fe­liks Jezio­ran­ski)

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