The MacNeice Mysteries

One thing that always keeps me wondering when I read a book is whether or not the author gets the little details right – if they are writing about a seamstress did they do the research and meet with people working in that field, read textbooks about it, shop in the stores where all of the relevant supplies can be purchased, even give it a try so that they can create a convincing picture of the world of being a seamstress… or pipe fitter, royal butler, dance teacher, what have you.

I feel the same way when a story involves a vivid description of a city or town. I begin to consider whether the author has actually been there or not and wonder have they made mistakes in describing the streets or the unique culture of the people who truly live there.  When a book is really successful you can come away feeling as if you have vacationed there. So I am left thinking to myself what if the city/town/village that this author created is not accurate to the one that actually exists in the real world? Have I been duped into thinking this town/city/village is fabulous when it really isn’t?  I am not wide awake every night with the questions of how accurately an author creates a sense of place but it has crossed my mind more than once.  Fairly often, really.

I have just begun reading a truly fantastic mystery series by author Scott Thornley set in my hometown and I can vouch for its authenticity.  He has chosen to call Hamilton ‘Dundurn’ and changed up the names of certain landmarks like the Skyway Bridge (he calls it the “Sky-High Bridge”, fine), the Royal Botanical Gardens, and McMaster University but by and large he has given his officer, Detective Superintendent MacNeice, many of the same streets, restaurants, parks and traditions known to anyone who calls it their hometown.

In one of the early chapters MacNeice is driving back into the city after visiting a crime scene and is reflecting on the popular opinion that his town Dundurn/Hamilton is ugly but he looks out over the harbour and disagrees.  He thinks that the city is inspiring – “even the smokestacks, the towering cranes and the enormous rust-coloured, dust-covered buildings with long piers that clawed like fingers into the bay towards the few freighters that still eased their way in and out.”

Thornley’s first novel, Erasing Memory, has MacNeice investigating the absolutely grisly murder of a freshly graduated university student with the help of a group of younger detectives, so the dark facts of the case are offset by their easy camaraderie and affection for the Detective Superintendent.  This is a police procedural with a thoughtful investigator at the core, one who considers each step in their exploration of the clues, carefully passes out assignments to his team, and contemplates his actions.  It feels as if you know him, and the other members of the investigation, so well within the first few chapters.  With that feeling in mind it is especially gripping to read the path that his characters are on as they search to find the solution to this mystery – you can’t help but care for them all.  In more than one chapter I was fairly sure that I had cracked it and discovered that my assumptions were wrong – I was shockingly, terrifyingly wrong – and the level of detail that Thornley provides in the novel is spectacular.  I’m sure that I could read it again and be just as impressed.

MacNeice is mourning the loss of his wife, Kate, while he is investigating the death of this young woman, mentoring young detectives, trying to keep the press from discovering too much about the case, and balancing the dangers of investigating it at the same time.  It’s a thrilling story with some emotional weight and enough humour that I was sorry to see that I was reaching the end (although I so badly wanted to know if I had finally figured it all out).

I’m relieved to tell you that we have all four of the MacNeice books here in the library and author Scott Thornley has recently announced that he is hard at work on the fifth which has a working title of “Run, Jack, Run”.  I’m advising you to pace yourself as you read them because I know that you will fall for Detective Superintendent MacNeice and, perhaps, the City of Dundurn/Hamilton as well.

— Penny M.