Hands Like Clouds
Reviewed: January 9, 2004
By: Mark Zuehlke
Publisher: The Dundurn Group
315 pages, $9.99
Elias McCann is an accidental coroner who lives and works in
Tofino. It's not that McCann needs the work, which is why I says he’s accidental.
McCann is the heir of one of those odd colonial holdovers, a remittance man.
These third of fourth sons of well to do British families were shipped off
to the colonies with an annual income on the condition that they stayed there
and didn’t come home to muddy the inheritance waters later on. McCann’s father
came to rest on Vancouver Island prospered, and left his son well off. Elias
is fabulously wealthy but, aside from minding a few investments in the local
economy, and cashing his stipend when it arrives, he doesn’t have to work.
If he didn’t though, he’d probably go crazy. Elias is still suffering
loads of guilt from the suicide of his wife a few years ago, and this is
clouding his relationship with Vhanna Chan, the woman in whose arms he was
on the night his wife shot herself. So - Elias actually likes to have a purpose
in life outside of brooding, not that he doesn’t do a fair amount of that.
He’s done other things. He put in a stint with the Canadian Forces,
for instance, and acquired a number of useful skills while on peacekeeping
missions. He’s an outdoorsman, has an inquisitive mind, and can be quite
tenacious. Think of him as Davinci without a police background and dressed
in a Filson coat and hat.
McCann’s creator has been nothing if not thorough in his creation
of the character. He’s also used a lot of the work he’s done in writing other
kinds of books over the last decade. He did a history of the remittance man
phenomenon. He has written extensively about the Canadian Forces. He has
hiked all over Vancouver Island and written a book on hiking trails. Finally
the 1967 Land Rover that McCann drives is based on one owned by Zuehlke’s
He’s also put a lot of thought into the background of his major
characters. A substantial portion of this book is spent exploring McCann’s
background and some of the major trauma’s in his life, while an entire chapter
is given over to Vhanna’s experiences as a Cambodian refugee when she was
a child. These memories do interrupt the development of the mystery plot,
but are interesting enough in terms of their contribution to character development
that I found I really didn’t mind.
The mystery begins with the gruesome find of an environmental
activist hanging from a tree near Tofino. It’s an apparent suicide which
doesn’t come off because of some things that don’t ring true. It is McCann
who discovers these, much to the disgust of the local RCMP officer, Sergeant
Danchuk, who still harbours suspicions about McCann’s role in the death of
his wife, and can’t imagine why anyone would have permitted such a man to
play about in law enforcement.
There is no lack of potential suspects if the case is to be pursued
as a murder, Danchuk, however, is preoccupied, along with all the other officials
in the area, with the upcoming visit of a US Senator, and sits on the case.
This causes Elias to poke around in a manner not unlike Spenser might follow,
just stirring the pot a little to see what rises to the surface. The answer
is, lots, including another murder and an attempt on McCann’s own life, not
to mention the arousal of official ire in the folks who ought to be taking
this case on.
There is lots of action as well as lots of descriptive prose
in this book. I told Zuehlke that this was the sort of prose I might have
expected from James Lee Burke if his novels were set on Vancouver Island
instead of Louisiana and southern Texas. Zuehlke said he was pleased by that,
as he is a Burke fan.
This is the first novel in the McCann series. There is a second
out, and Zuehlke finished a third while he was the occupant of Berton House
in Dawson last fall, so this seems to be a character who might be around
for a while. There have even been nibbles of television movie interest.
Oh, yes, the title. “Hands Like Clouds” is a Tai Chi manoeuvre.
It is used in the book as figure of speech to describe how Elias manages
to break down the chief suspect’s resistance, but Tai Chi itself is embedded
in the book, and the concept of misdirection has a lot to do with how all
mystery writers work their magic.