There have been a number of attempts to set mysteries in and around Dawson City in my 32 years of book reviewing. They range from tales of Mounties, to Sue Henry’s musher/sleuth Jessie Arnold. There was even a mystery-thriller featuring a vampire who found Dawson a congenial place to be for the six darker months of the year.
Vicki Delany comes to us with an Agatha Christie sort of plot that’s set right at the height of the Gold Rush and does its best to recreate the Bierce, if not the exact detail, of that period.
I call it an Agatha Christie style book because it’s one of those where the murder victim is introduced early on and very quickly alienates so many members of the cast that the line up of suspects who would have enjoyed killing him is lined up around the block. In this type of mystery, there are so many red herrings you could open a fish mongers stall, but that’s fine, because it keeps you guessing.
Christie, of course, spent a lot of time setting the stage and introducing the cast before bumping off the nasty offensive person, usually so nasty that the readers quietly sigh ‘At last!’ when they shuffle off this mortal coil.
In this case, Delany has employed a different technique. The body, that of an entirely reprehensible yellow journalist named Jack Ireland, is discovered on the stage of the Savoy saloon and dance hall, “the finest establishment west of London, England” on page 4. We spend the next 110 pages getting acquainted with the place and finding out why we’re not surprised he’s dead.
The Savoy’s owner, and narrator of the story, is Fiona MacGillivray, a lady with a checkered past of her own. There’s more than a hint of genteel knavery about her, somewhere between Irene Adler (from Conan Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia”) and Selina Kyle, (Catwoman). Her origins are in the poor parts of Scotland and she’s determined never to be poor again, by whatever means.
She also has a son, young Angus, who is just at that point in life where he wants to have mummy’s apron strings be a wee bit looser. He is probably the biggest reason why Fiona is treading the straight and narrow path in her middle years.
Fiona runs the Savoy with a firm hand on the ledger and the help of her business partner, a former Glasgow street fighter named Ray Walker. It’s modeled after the many gaming houses that existed in Dawson at one time and feels about right with its mix of floor show, dime a dance girls and gambling room. It somehow manages to seem larger than it probably ought to be, but that’s not a big problem.
Ireland has offended a long list of people in the short time since he got off the boat. There’s another journalist in town who knows and loathes him; a dancing girl who bears the marks of his abuse; the smitten barkeep who would be ready to kill if he knew what had been done to her; and the people who were misrepresented by this miscreant scribbler on the very first batch of stories he filed out of town. He sent them by steamboat, but a clerk in the pay of a rival copied the letter before it left town.
The mystery is just one part of the story. Fiona has several men who are interested in her. Constable Richard Sterling is probably in the lead running, though she tries not to admit it. Grahame Donohue, the other reporter, is clearly interested. Sergeant Lancaster of the NWMP is totally smitten and actually proposes to her, which leads to some comic moments.
Then there’s the matter of simply living in Dawson in 1898: running the establishment; keeping the girls in line and making sure they don’t do another type of “dancing” on the side; raising a child who is on the verge of becoming a young man; dealing with such crises as a fire in one of the nearby shops.
Not all of the novel is told from Fiona’s first person point of view. Some of it is third person narrative, and the usual point of view for that is Angus, who, at one point, tricks Const. Sterling into taking him up the creeks as part of his murder investigation. This causes his mother and their landlady some consternation, but it all works out in the end.
One or two other people get a chance to give us their view of things, and this adds to the development of both the plot and the characters.
The solution to the mystery took me by surprise. It was not at all obvious, and did not lead to a neat and tidy ending, but life is like that, isn’t it.
This is intended to be the start of a series of novels, and Delany has plans for Fiona, including revealing more of that veiled past that sounds so intriguing. I’ve interviewed the author and that piece will make its way to these pages when Dawson stops being quite so busy and my “to write” list gets a lttle shorter.