City of Hamilton has more than a cameo in detective series
Chris Laing has finished his third book in the Max Dexter series: “I don’t think I can stop with them now”
People say “write what you know.” And so Chris Laing set out to write about Hamilton in the late 1940s.
Laing’s mystery series features Second World War veteran and former Mountie Max Dexter, who opens his own detective agency in Hamilton along with his assistant Isabel O’Brien.
The third book in the series, “A Family Matter,” has just been released and once again, Hamilton could be counted as a character in its own right. In the first chapter alone, Laing mentions the Tivoli Theatre, the corner of Cannon and James, Hamilton Harbour, Central Collegiate Institute and bootlegging joints along the Beach Strip run by gangster Rocco Perri.
The 80-year-old was born in Toronto and moved to Hamilton as a toddler, just before the Second World War. The Hamilton he remembers was a hustling, bustling energetic place that included gypsies reading your fortune, an outdoor Hamilton Market where you could buy live chickens and the jazz clubs he sneaked into while still under age.
Laing’s dad worked at Otis-Fensom Elevator Company and remained at the facility producing anti-aircraft guns during the war and stayed on when it became a Studebaker plant. The family lived in a wartime housing development in west Hamilton.
“It was constructed by the city during the war, cheap houses thrown up quickly for military families or those connected to war work,” said Laing who attended Canadian Martyrs Catholic elementary school and then Westdale Secondary School.
While working in the office at the Tuckett Tobacco Company, a teenaged Laing spent a lot of time downtown during trips to make deposits at the bank.
“I walked around downtown a lot and got to know how people lived,” Laing remembers. “It was always in the back of my mind that this is Hamilton. It was a romantic recollection of mine. It is rosier in some ways and grimier in some senses.”
He worked as business manager for the Kitchener-Waterloo Record before moving to the Federal Public Service, where he served in the Department of the Secretary of State and National Museums of Canada before retiring and moving to Kingston. Laing married Michèle LaRose in 1959 and the couple has two daughters and three sons, as well as has nine grandchildren, whose names appear in his books, including Max, Dexter and Isabel.
“I always had writing in back of my mind,” Laing says. “I am a fan of detective novels and I listened to the radio a lot as a kid and was very taken with detective stories and shoot ‘em up stuff. It remained with me my whole life.
“I thought, ‘I can write as well as some of these guys.’ So I am trying it myself.”
Laing started with “West End Kid: Tales from the Forties,” short stories about a group of kids growing up in Hamilton during the Second World War, which he published himself in 2004.
The first in his Max Dexter series was “A Private Man,” published by Seraphim Editions in 2012. Set in 1947, Max and his assistant, Isabel, are on the case from murder to money laundering and organized crime. The book was a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing in the Best First Crime Novel category.
In the second book, “A Deadly Venture,” published in 2014, Max’s friend is arrested for murder and Hamilton mobsters attempt to discourage Max and Isabel from tracking down the real killer. That book won a 2015 Kerry Schooley Award presented by the Hamilton Arts Council.
In the third book, Max’s mother returns to Hamilton after more than 20 years and it is unknown whether she is involved in an internal Mob war heating up in the city.
Laing is now halfway into writing this fourth book with the same characters. “I don’t think I can stop with them now,” he says.
Retired Hamilton Spectator reporter Stewart Brown has helped Laing with his books by providing information on the Hamilton entertainment scene in the 1940s.
“I was reading ‘A Deadly Venture’ just this week,” says Brown. “Chris is very thorough in his research and he obviously relishes the 1940s and his writing reflects that admiration.
“His books are a Valentine to the era and the city in which he grew up. He makes Hamilton in the ’40s sound more fun and exciting than it is today.”
Author Chris Laing says he’s been a fan of detective stories his whole life and listened to them on the radio while growing up.
“A Family Matter”" is the third in Chris Laing’s Max Dexter series. All are set in Hamilton.