Tuesday, November 22, 2005

John Farrow: Ice Lake

The dust jacket of Ice Lake tells us that John Farrow is the pseudonym for a distinguished Canadian author of literary fiction.

Well, ever the nit-picker, I have to say that 'pen name' would in my opinion be a better term to use than pseudonym. The latter suggests an intention to hide an identity, perhaps even to deceive; whereas the former suggests (to me, at any rate) a name adopted to indicate a particular style of work. In any case, you don't have to google very hard to discover that John Farrow is actually a guy called Trevor Ferguson.

Trevor's first five literary novels won the highest plaudits from the critics, but, in a 2001 interview with J. Kingston Pierce, he does not disagree with a statement that none of them sold more than 700 copies. (I hope you guys are paying attention out there. Critical praise does not translate into sales.)

Come 1995, therefore, Trevor decided that, if he was going to survive as a writer, something had to change. So he began to write crime fiction under a new name. So far he has written two John Farrow books, but a search on Amazon.com suggests that he has published nothing new under either name since 2001.

John Farrow's first 'mystery thriller', to use the 2001 interviewer's term, was City of Ice. Set in the author's home town of Montreal, it featured a French-descended detective called Emile Cinq-Mars -- 'an old-fashioned cop in a new-fashioned world.' This book was notably well received by a new set of critics; the Vancouver Sun said that it 'might be the best book ever produced in Canada', and Booklist labelled it 'a character-driven mystery of the highest order.'

Ice Lake is the second in the John Farrow/Emile Cinq-Mars series. And personally I would characterise it as crime fiction. There isn't much suspense, apart from one scene; there is little mystery; and it certainly isn't a whodunit -- or at least, not for very long. What it is, is a long, detailed, and rather old-fashioned novel about people involved in a crime. Some of the people are mostly good, some mostly bad, and at least one is more than a little insane.

The setting is Montreal in winter, and judging by the description I am mighty glad I don't live there. The author makes heavy use of the complicated social structure of the city, involving (just for starters), those of French, English, and Mohawk Indian antecedents; and all of these cultural complications are well understood and well described.

The narrative technique is traditional to the point of being old-fashioned, as mentioned above. And eventually we get to know an enormous amount of detail about the origins, early life, medical history, tastes, ambitions, and general psychological profile, of all the major characters; with a little Freudian analysis thrown in. The only thing we are short of is the results of their Rorschach tests.

Ice Lake is, just like every other thriller these days, a good 50-100 pages too long. And I wish I could say that I found it to be a real zinger. But I didn't. It's diligent, capable, and it held my attention; but it's also pedestrian, over-conscientious, and committedly bourgeois. So what we end up with is a James Ellroy plot as written by a very polite vicar.


Anonymous said...

I am sorry to say I have never heard of Trevor Ferguson,nor his alter-ego, John Farrow. It is much better to go to Montreal as a kid and something of a tourist. The French are great, no matter their antecedents or famiy trees.
The native finds a home, even if he's from Ontario. A likeable and hospitable people.
Interesting that his book sold 700+
copies. That's about the number I sold of my last novel, Light Over
Newmarket, which I hawked in the vestibules after stump speeches while running, in fact, for Mayor of Newmarket...There are many ways to skin a cat. Authors don't have large audiences; politicians can asemble some.
Still, after spending ten thousand dollars to glean two thousand, I wonder if it was all worth it.
I think it was. I am now a household name in Newmarket, Ontario.
Spend ten thousand. Make yourself
famous,even if you have to lose an election.
I certainly wouldn't recommend politics to aspiring writers; oxymoron here. But run for office and see how fast your book sales go up.

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