Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Black Rock

For the past few months I've been working on a new novel which right now I'm calling Black Rock. It's set in Montreal in 1970, the year of the "October Crisis" and is about a young, almost-rookie cop who gets involved in the hunt for a serial killer.

I was planning to write a novel about the value of a single life (if that doesn't sound too pretentious, which I know it does) and set it against the backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Quebec politician Pierre Laporte. One of the things I've heard a lot about the period of terrorism we lived through in Montreal in the late 60s and into 1970 was that "only eight" people were killed by terrorists and I started to wonder, well, isn't one too many?

When I started to look into this idea of the value of a life I thought about the memorial on the Montreal side of the Victoria Bridge commemorating the deaths of 6000 Irish immigrants to Canada during the famine. 6000, that’s a lot, surely no one would ever say, “only six thousand,” about that.

And yet, I’ve driven by that monument thousands of times in my life and never stopped to read the inscription and never really knew the story behind it. It’s official name is The Irish Commemorative Stone and Wikipedia says it’s sometimes called the “Ship Fever Monument” or the “Boulder Stone” but I’ve never heard it called anything but the “Black Rock.”

The story I’ve always heard about the Black Rock was that Irish workers digging out the piers for the Victoria Bridge sometime between 1854 and 1859 discovered a mass grave – the coffins of 6000 Irish immigrants who had died of typhoid on the ships crossing the Atlantic (or died under quarantine in the ‘fever sheds’) in 1847.

And it’s only now that I’m realizing between the typhus epidemic and the discovery of the mass grave less than ten years have passed. So, in less than a decade the deaths of 6000 people have been buried and forgotten. No marker, nothing.

The story goes that when the workers dug up the mass grave they also dug up the big rock and wanted to use it as a memorial. I have a feeling there was some discussion about not losing any work time to do it, but let’s call that a hunch.

The inscription on the rock reads:

"To Preserve from Desecration the Remains of 6000 Immigrants Who died of Ship Fever A.D. 1847-48 This Stone is erected by the Workmen of Messrs. Peto, Brassey and Betts Employed in the Construction of the Victoria Bridge A.D. 1859.”

So, the Black Rock fits with my ideas about the value of a single life, but I am a little wary about trying to attach myself to so much history. And the murders of the three women. When does exploitation start, exactly?

Well, one writer is using historical events and not exploiting them, but writing fantastic books, is my friend Adrian McKinty. His latest published novel, The Cold Cold Ground, takes place in Northern Ireland in 1981 and there’s really nothing I can add to the long, long list of great reviews the book has received. The weird thing is it’s easier to get the e-book or the audiobook in north America as no US publisher has picked it up.

I predict that will change with either the second or third book in the series.


Raymond M. said...

Sounds like an interesting novel. Cant wait to read it.

Have you read John Farrow's River City? It intersperses the history of Montréal with the investigation of a crime that took place during the Rocket Richard riots. Great book and I think it strikes the type of tone you're looking for.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sounds like a great project, John. Hard to believe how little Americans know about the events in Montreal. Or anywhere for that matter. Sadly, I include myself.

John McFetridge said...

No, Raymond, I haven't read that one but the reviews were very good. I did read City of Ice and Ice Lake but I think they have a different tone.

Thanks Patti. Maybe the US and Canada are the best kind of neighbours, we try and stay out of each other's business ;).

seana graham said...

John, this sounds like a great idea. Obviously, I'm a fan of McKinty's The Cold, Cold Ground so of course I know you're on the right track with this one.

I'm never wrong, although for some reason American publishers don't always agree with me.

Peter Rozovsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know if one ought to start making national generalizations, but another crime writer who uses historical events without exploiting them is also Irish: Kevin McCarthy, and the novel is Peeler. John Lawton's "Troy" novels are very much more about their times (variously 1938 through the 1960s) than about their crimes, but you just might like them.

I don't know when exploitation starts, but the historical crime novels that most impress me are ones in which the crimes and investigations are inextricable for the setting. I begin to worry when an author claims merely to be writing about ordinary crimes that happened to occur in extraordinary times.

And yes, I hope that a hell of a lot of Americans are knocked out when they read The Cold Cold Ground and a whole lot of publishers smack themselves in the forehead about the thrilling novel that they missed.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, inextricable from from the setting, that is.

John McFetridge said...

That's a good point, thanks, Peter. I've been worried about making too much of a connection to the specifics of the time, but I think you're right, I should worry more about not making enough of connection.

Not that I worry that I don't worry enough....

Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Naturally I don’t mean that the protagonist has to be bumping into historical figures all the time, but the reader should never be led to question the author's choice of time period.

I never did so with Cold Cold Ground or Peeler or Havoc, In Its Third Year or Carlo Lucarelli's DeLuca novels. =======================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Androw said...

Exciting stuff. God bless as you.
Buy Articles

Unknown said...

Car Rental MississaugaWe also have another branch company, car rental brampton, to provide the same services in Brampton.Car Rental Toronto