BEEN THERE, WROTE THAT
Chris Laing’s new mystery is set in the Hamilton of Rocco Perri, Evelyn Dick and no-seam nylons
by DON GRAVES
December 15, 2012
Chris Laing, a born-and-bred Hamiltonian, has just seen the release of his first mystery, A Private Man, through Seraphim Editions.
Max Dexter is a private investigator with his own “Gore Park Irregulars” group – a band of differently abled vets with keen eyes and sharp ears.
Then there’s his uptown assistant Isabel O’Brien, who drives a flashy Studebaker, wears nylons with no seams and leaves weak-kneed men tripping over their tongues in her wake.
But there’s another star to Laing’s outstanding debut novel: 1947 Hamilton, complete with Rocco Perri, the Pigott Building, Birk’s Clock, Evelyn Dick languishing in the Barton Street Jail and, across the canal, the Brant Inn with Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
We sat down for a talk about his new book.
Don: A Private Man’s a hit. But I wondered why the Chicken Roost isn’t one of Max Dexter’s hangouts.
Chris: I wanted very much to include the Chicken Roost because it was the first restaurant I’d ever been in – my mother took me as a reward for something or other. However, it didn’t open until 1948 and I’d already gotten well into my story set in 1947. Here’s a great line from Margaret Houghton’s Vanished Hamilton II: “When Max and Benny Mintz opened the Chicken Roost on October 1, 1948, they had no money for the till so Max went over to Sherman’s Men’s Shop and sold his suit for 10 bucks.”
Don: Your Hamilton voice makes the setting a highlight. It links plot, dialague and character together. What’s the backstory here?
Chris: A long-winded answer, but you asked. My family lived in a wartime housing development in west Hamilton and I was 11 in 1947. When I finished grade 12 at Westdale I got a job at the Tuckett Tobacco Company as an office junior. I made deliveries to the Bank of Commerce at King and James and to Customs and Excise at the Federal Building. And I walked around downtown a lot to delay going back to the office. So I got to know folks downtown.
My character “Rudy” in my novel was the real-life blind guy who operated the newsstand in the Federal Building. And I got to know The Flamingo, Duffy’s Tavern and other places. So I chose 1947 because there was a lot going on then. I could refer to the Stelco strike in 1946 and, of course, the Evelyn Dick case was front and centre. I remember those times fondly and maybe I should add that I’m a nosy bugger with a pretty good memory.
Don: Authors often leave a long footprint, the sum of which leads them into writing. What’s your footprint?
Chris: I worked a couple more jobs before moving from Hamilton in the late ’50s when I landed a job at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, first in circulation and later as Business Manager. During my 10 years there, I got married, had a family and later, in 1969, returned to school, earning a degree and doing graduate work at Waterloo. From there I joined the Federal Government, working in Hamilton, Regina and Ottawa until my retirement. And I learned to write an intelligible sentence at The Record and at university. But I had no inclination to write fiction until well after I’d retired.
Don: What influenced you?
Don: Like most readers when they discover a story they can’t put down, I’m wondering about what’s next for Max Dexter?
Chris: Yes, there’s a series here. I’ve begun the next saga of Max and Isabel and I hope I’ve learned enough in the process with this one that the next one will be even better.
STEELTOWN…a character in its own right
It’s 1947: Post-second world war Hamilton, the year after the infamous Stelco strike and “hotter than hell” according to gumshoe Max Dexter, former Mountie and an army veteran discharged with a serious injury and determined to make a living in his hometown running his own private detective office.
Dexter doesn’t just count on Isabel O’Brien, a walk-in drop-dead gorgeous assistant, to save his bacon – in more ways than one.
Chris Laing’s A Private Man is an entertaining story that begins with a missing-person case that quickly accelerates into arson, money laundering, art theft and murder. With a climax worth the price of admission alone, A Private Man is a top-shelf winner.
There is a secret ingredient added to the polished story line, character and dialogue: Laing has made the local setting a fully-fledged character.
If you think back over the great mysteries you’ve read, the truly memorable ones lift setting, place and atmosphere beyond mere description.
Here’s hoping for many more.
The “history mystery” is a great vehicle, not only for the genre angle that makes up a mystery story but also for the nostalgic adventure that a story, set in our past, can generate.
A Private Man is a must read. Its sequel is on the way.