Detective Murdoch, and Maureen Jennings’ Wild Ride

One nice thing about being a mystery writer, says Maureen Jennings, is that you can “get revenge.” Or else, if you don’t want to insert nasty people you know as characters in your novel so you can give them a good comeuppance, you can instead insert people you like, and give them a good story.

Ms. Jennings spoke last evening at the Danforth/Coxwell branch of the Toronto Public Library, as part of the annual Keep Toronto Reading month. You may know her as the author of the (so far) seven books of the Detective Murdoch mystery series set in Toronto in the late nineteenth century, and as a consultant on both the three Murdoch movies and the ongoing television series. She’s also written two novels about Christine Morris, a Detective-Sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police, and is beginning a trilogy of novels set in the UK during the Second World War.

That war, in fact, was an early factor in Jennings’ gradual evolution toward authorhood, and she delighted her library audience last evening with stories from this evolution. She told us how during her childhood in the UK, her family used to visit the family of a couple of cousins. All four cousins would sleep in the same bed, and the others would ask Jennings to make up a story for them. The other three would fall asleep as she told her tales, and she would be left lying alert, thinking, “When I grow up, I’m going to write stories that keep people awake.”

She certainly does that now. In fact, even in the library meeting, she couldn’t help but interrupt herself occasionally, saying, “Oh, but I have to read you this because you’ll laugh.” She had brought several “props” with her, including a big plaque-mounted photograph of her dog, Jeremy Brett. (Can you guess who one of Jennings’ first literary influences was?**) She also described what the “seed” was, for each of her novel ideas.

It’s surprising what can come out of digging through the city archives. For example, just coming across the description of a legal case involving a kids’ Sunday school card with obscenities scrawled on it inspired the plot of one novel, while police reports, photographs, or newspaper articles have influenced others. Jennings is the kind of writer who just lets things catch her eye, yet when they do, she weaves a story that often connects to highly relevant modern issues as well. Her most recent Christine Morris novel delves into the whole subculture of the deaf, which most hearing people don’t even know exists.

It’s hard to remember, with so many Murdoch mysteries written, and the movies, and a fourth season of the TV series about to start shooting, that Jennings’ first Murdoch mystery was published only thirteen years ago. But the room last night was full of Murdoch fans eager to compare the books and shows and hear the “gossip” from Murdoch’s creator herself. (One nice tidbit was that the TV series has now been picked up by PBS, and the first season is about to be broadcast.)

It’s been kind of a whirlwind for Jennings, the last decade or so as her books have become more and more well-known. But judging from her enthusiasm and tale-telling last night, she is more than able to handle it all, and is really enjoying the ride.

Props (See Jeremy Brett?)

(** Jeremy Brett starred as Sherlock Holmes in the well known BBC television series.)

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More of Austin Clarke, Please

Tina Srebotnjak interviews Austin ClarkeI learned one important thing last night at the first event in the One Book element of April’s Keep Toronto Reading festival: ask author Austin Clarke a question, and you’ll probably get a lengthy, meandering anecdote in response. But it will always be fascinating, and you’re likely to learn something about Toronto or perhaps Clarke’s native Barbados that you’d never known before.

It’s kind of fun, the idea of getting an entire city reading the same book for a whole month. Of course, realistically, no one can get a whole city to do that, but Toronto certainly tries. And one of the primary features of the One Book that gets chosen each year is that the city of Toronto itself features prominently.

The same holds true for this year’s selection, More by Austin Clarke. As he described during an interview with Tina Srebotnjak last evening at the Toronto Reference Library, the novel takes place in Toronto – as a matter of fact, in a neighbourhood just south of where I live myself – and deals with the immigrant experience. How does someone whose entire range of cultural norms and social cues has been left behind manage to know or even recognize themselves in a wholly new context? These are issues with which Idora, the main character of the book, must struggle, as Clarke himself struggled three or four decades ago as an immigrant to Toronto.

In a very small way, I can relate to this dilemma, having come almost exactly a decade ago from conservative Calgary to liberal Toronto, and having had to reinvent myself as a Torontonian. This is why I love books like More, or the very first One Book chosen in 2008, Michael Redhill’s Consolation. I love discovering the many layers and facets of this city.

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

Clarke certainly gave the audience some of those last night. One of his anecdotes took us to the jazz clubs in his early days here, virtually all of them now closed. But he could remember that this one was owned by So-and-So from Hungary, “and his wife used to bake cakes,” while that one was where he first saw this or that musician. Mister Clarke gave us a snapshot of Toronto-then compared to Toronto-now. And I got nostalgic for all the history that I’d missed.

The evening was rounded out by selected readings from More, by actress and writer Trey Anthony, and the Mike Murley jazz trio regaled us with music to suit the mood of the book, both before and after the interview and readings.

I plan to go to several other events during this Keep Toronto Reading month. But this introduction, with the reminiscences and insights of Austin Clarke, reminded me why I love Toronto, and added yet another layer to my understanding of my adopted city.

Jazz Trio