Gail Bowen’s Latest Could Be Ripped From Headlines
Weinstein echoes in new Bowen thriller, but book was planned a decade ago
A Darkness of the Heart Gail Bowen Penguin Random House
Is Harvey Weinstein stalking the pages of Gail Bowen’s latest mysterynovel?
Well, not exactly. But in a sense, he’s there in the person of a predatory Hollywood power broker with unusual sexual needs.
So the award-winning Regina writer wants to set the record straight. She didn’t have Weinstein in mind when writing A Darkness of the Heart. It was already completed by the time the scandal hit the headlines.
“But it was quite shattering to see the reports,” Bowen says now. She was even more thrown by the realization that she had uncannily created a character whose unpleasant sexual needs mirrored some of those attributed to the notorious former boss of Miramax Pictures. “I had no way of knowing,” she reiterates.
“When working on the book, I was aware that this sort of thing went on — this exercise of power by powerful people determined to satisfy their needs or desires or whatever,” Bowen says by phone from her Regina home. “They’re marking their territory.”
Her social activism and her years teaching at First Nations University of Canada often brought her in contact with victims of sexual abuse. “A lot of the kids I taught had been on the streets — so there’s not a lot that I haven’ t heard about .”
Furthermore, the germ for the new novel—the 18 thin an enormous ly popular series featuring her much-loved Regina sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn — was actually planted a decade ago during a train journey. She fell into conversation with a fellow passenger, a young hockey player who had much to tell her about the scandal involving Swift Current junior league coach Graham James who went to prison for sexually assaulting his young charges.
The conversation stayed in her mind. “Parents essentially handed over parental rights to the coach and his team, so these children had no one to goto. The coach was their world.”
Now she’s finally examining these concerns in a novel that explores the dark side of the movie industry. Again, the young are the victims. “But I decided to use actors because I thought this was something I could deal with more knowledgeably,” says Bowen, a playwright as well as a novelist.
In the novel, a Hollywood company has arrived in Regina to shoot a new film — and disturbing undercurrents begin surfacing. Joanne and her family are drawn into what’s happening as a result of the close friendship that develops between her brilliant 18-year-old artist daughter, Taylor, and the film’s vulnerable 17-year-old star.
As with many of Bowen’s novels, a crime does not happen immediately: she owes her huge following as much to her attention to character and place as it does to her ingenious mysteries. So she’s confident enough to allow the darkness to creep up on the reader — in this case more than a hundred pages into the narrative.
“I really want readers to feel invested in what’s going on,” the 75-year-old novelist says. “These are real people, and real things happen to real people.”
She points to the allegations against Weinstein. “It’s shocking how power is used against the powerless. So I wanted readers to care about the characters so that when something happens to them, we do care.”
One unsettling chapter deals with the sexual assault of a young woman with — in Bowen’s words — “fractured intellectual abilities.” By the time the incident happens, the reader knows and likes this innocent victim. “I want people to see my characters as dimensional — and then the crime comes,” Bowen says.
Ever since the publication of her first novel, Deadly Appearances, in 1990, Bowen has been creating her own fictional world — a world anchored in the City of Regina, in the warmth of family and friends, in a changing social and political landscape often reflective of its author’s left-of-centre leanings, in an ever widening community of believable but often fallible human beings, in the reality of tragedy and loss. Each book works as a standalone novel, but its interconnections with companion volumes in the cycle are increasingly apparent.
Bowen’s readers are incredibly loyal. “Most people who read the Joanna books read all of them and then will go back and start again,” she says. “This surprises and pleases me.”
Bowen isa def tsp inner of mysteries, but she also loves writing about family get-togethers, the menu for a yuletide meal, shopping excursions to the Cornwall Mall or Christmas communion at the Anglican cathedral of St. George. That’s part of the attraction for her fan base.
Joanne has changed and grown older in the years since that first novel appeared. Throughout the canon of books, she has known both happiness and tragic loss. With A Darkness of the Heart, she’s now 60, enjoying a rich and fulfilling marriage to paraplegic lawyer Zack Shreve — and continuing to stumble on to crimes.
“I think her take on life is pretty much the same as mine,” Bowen says. “I imagine she’s changed me and writing about her has changed me. She’s a much better person than I am, but I get agitated when people say to me — oh she’s so perfect. Because she isn’t.”
A Darkness of the Heart isn’t the only new book Gail Bowen has out this year. In April, the University of Regina Press published Sleuth, a guide on how to write mysteries. “I wanted to write something that was very accessible, fun to read and useful,” Bowen says.
The seed for Gail Bowen’s latest book was planted during a conversation with a fellow train passenger about 10 years ago.