Regina author marks 30 years of her fictional sleuth
Writer understands the relationship readers have with her detective
The Unlocking Season Gail Bowen ECW Press
It began with Regina author Gail Bowen's desire to write a novel about a woman entering middle age, who would be the widow of a murdered husband and trying to make sense of her frequently troubled world.
Bowen also decided to make Joanne Kilbourn an accidental sleuth and involve her in crimes and misdemeanours that revealed society's fault lines. And she found an appropriate microcosm for these concerns in her own city of Regina.
Still, Bowen never dreamed that Joanne would be embarking on an extended fictional life when that first novel, Deadly Appearances, arrived in 1990. She had spun an intriguing mystery that introduced Joanne as a political strategist caught up in the murder of a Saskatchewan politician. But she was also introducing readers to a genre-defying heroine who would reign over a durable, much-loved series.
Joanne was no Supergirl. As Bowen once put it: “I wanted her to be a Saskatchewan person. I wanted her to believe that if something goes wrong, you roll up your sleeves and do your best to fix it.”
The Unlocking Season, number 19 in the canon, has now arrived. Joanne is now entering her fourth decade of fictional life — exceeding the longevity of such other superstar heroes as Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, Lee Child's Jack Reacher and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch.
“That astonishes me,” Bowen confesses with a laugh. She remembers how naive she was when she first ventured into the world of crime fiction.
“When I wrote Deadly Appearances, it never occurred to me that it wouldn't be published,” she says. “That would suggest a degree of innocence bordering on stupidity.” And then, when readers snapped up and embraced the novel, she didn't expect Joanne to be around decades later. “I didn't anticipate a long series — but it happened.”
Bowen is no slouch when it comes to plotting. Over the years, she has concocted some devilishly clever crimes, but she's also bold enough on occasion to make the mystery aspect a mere makeweight to a larger preoccupation with the dynamics of family and society.
In the new novel, Joanne seeks to discover the truth behind the chilling fate suffered by a close friend who is also the scriptwriter of a new television series dealing with her own tangled history. He has disappeared while scouting for locations in Northern Saskatchewan, and when finally found is in a state of gibbering terror that proves fatal.
But this is also a novel whose very first pages take us into a warm family gathering where Joanne's grandchildren are painting Easter eggs. Multi-generational family events are a big deal in these books. “I love writing about them,” Bowen says by phone from her Regina home. “I love planning the menu, I love setting the table.” She and her husband, Ted, are both in their late 70s and the “big family parties” in the novels are reflections of what happens in their own lives.
Furthermore, the mail Bowen gets suggests that readers are drawn as much to Joanne's particular world of family, social activism and faith as they are to the mystery element. Readers can have such an intimate relationship with this world that they see each novel as a further instalment in Joanne's ongoing, complex story.
“I know that readers come to my books because Joanne is someone with whom they would like to have coffee,” Bowen writes in Sleuth, her engaging 2018 guidebook on mystery writing. “They want to know what's happening in her life, and they want to know how what's happening is affecting her.”
It's therefore typical of The Unlocking Season that past events from previous books return to haunt the present. And in case a reader's memory needs refreshing, Bowen's new publisher, ECW, has come up with a character index available online at ecwpress.com/ blogs/news/the-unlocking-season.
Bowen has a lot in common with Joanne — an affection for Bouvier dogs, a sturdy Anglican faith, a thing for butcher block tables. “But she's a lot better person than I am.”
Still Joanne's hatred of injustice is strongly shared by Bowen. Hence, a loving same-sex relationship exists within Joanne's own family. Furthermore, given Bowen's years as a professor at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, it comes as no surprise that Indigenous Canadians are part of Joanne's world, which in turn ensures that Bowen's home city, warts and all, exerts a strong presence in her fiction. It's no accident that Regina's economically deprived North Central neighbourhood figures in the books.
“Joanne's circle is inclusive, but for many people, that's not the case,” Bowen says. “We still have people whose solution to the problems of North Central is not to drive through it, as if that will make it go away. We may have a huge football stadium but we also have huge social problems.”
Bowen took the new novel to ECW Press after her longtime publisher, Mcclelland & Stewart, signalled it wanted her to end the series. Bowen is pragmatic about the parting. “I saw it as a business decision. I never took it personally.” She simply said no, instead offering the book to a receptive ECW.
Bowen has now completed the 20th Joanne novel, A Reflection In the Water, and is well into No. 21. She promises that Joanne is in safe hands. “The one thing I know is that I'm not going to kill her off and am not going to hand her over to anyone else.”
Joanne, now in her 60s, has been allowed to age. “I was aging and I wanted her to grow as well. I think that's why I've stayed interested in her. She changes and I'm still discovering her.”
In so doing, Bowen has sometimes pushed back against her fans. When Joanne's current husband, Zack Shreve, a paraplegic lawyer, entered her life in The Last Good Day, Bowen's readers were hostile.
“Nobody liked him, but I knew there had to be more edge in Joanne's life. I think what really got them was that she'd known Zack for less than a week when they had sex. So being a good Anglican girl, I got them married quickly — and people have come to like him.
“I recently had a stern letter from Montreal saying — `if anything happens to Zack, I will never read another word you write.' That seems to put me on notice!”