Mystery treads into Elmore Leonard country
FOR a taciturn farmer who just wants to mind his own business, Virgil Cain sure does a lot of sleuthing without ever seeming to be consciously detectifying.
In Ontario writer Brad Smith’s imaginary world, Cain is a retired minor league baseball player from rural Quebec now living on an isolated property in upstate New York.
When a pile of self-centred, egotistical, devious, scheming and cunning Hollywood types show up in the neighbourhood filming a historical movie, murder soon follows.
Shoot the Dog is Smith’s third Cain mystery, following on Red Means Run and Crow’s Landing.
The on-the-edge characters and gritty and witty dialogue are from Elmore Leonard territory, but the violence is certainly muted; the reader hears about the murders after the deeds are done.
It’s not a hard and fast rule the protagonist in a mystery novel must be a police officer or private detective — Miss Marple was neither — but Virgil seems to find things out just by hanging around and being himself, and not actively using his little grey cells to ferret out clues.
Smith does virtually nothing to establish Virgil’s background. He ignores many authors’ standard catch-up for readers new to a series: no background on Virgil in the first chapter, virtually no mention of what happened in previous books, no Cole’s Notes on Claire Marchand, a woman with whom Virgil obviously has a relationship of some sort.
Virgil’s name, all music-loving boomers should know, is the same as the narrator of the classic song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by rootsrock group the Band.
After a while, the keen-eyed reader picks up that Claire is a police officer, but it’s probably halfway through the book when it is made clear she’s in the state police and is a pretty senior investigator.
Smith just assumes readers will sort it all out without being hit over the head with details.
Shoot the Dog — a derogatory movie term to describe a plot device to help slow audience members identify the villain — moves quickly and is filled with great dialogue.
Virgil is a bright guy, but if the movie people want to treat all rural folk as slow and inferior, well, yup, he’ll bide his time while renting them two of his horses and picking up serious coin on set as a wrangler.
The movie producers have the rights to a best-selling historical novel about a pioneer single woman, but Frontier Woman lacks details they’d prefer to have, such as natives massacring settlers. They are also — not much of a spoiler — bluffing about having enough money to make the movie.
Enter millionaire native casino operator Ronnie Red Hawk, who entered prison a low-life white man and emerged proclaiming native ancestry.
He’s also got a thing for Kari Karson, a starlet who’s a kleptomaniac with substance-abuse issues — gosh, who could that be in real life? — whom Red Hawk would prefer to see in the film he’s bankrolling than the genuine actor who plays the lead role.
Virgil wouldn’t care one way or the other, except there’s a 10-year-old girl acting in the film who’s a decent human being, and as the bodies start piling up, Virgil reckons no one’s watching out for the little girl.
Shoot the Dog is a great read, but the ending comes all rather abruptly, leaving lots of plot threads hanging, which, readers may suppose, is a lot like real life.