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Murder in the Chilcotin

By Roy Innes

Review By Sage Birchwater

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 177-78

Author Roy Innes can be forgiven for his less than stellar accuracy in depicting the Cariboo Chilcotin in his recent crime novel, Murder in the Chilcotin. His story-telling prowess, captivating story line, and intriguing plot leave the reader at his mercy. You don’t want to put the book down. He cleverly waits to the very last pages to reveal whodunit, the butler with the poker, or the maid with the candlestick.

Anyone with half an inkling of knowledge of the Cariboo Chilcotin, particularly Anahim Lake, will roll their eyes at some of the geographical, cultural, flora and fauna, and logistic gaffs in the setting for the novel. For instance, the distance between Anahim Lake and Williams Lake is 320 km, not 150 km; kids don’t ride to school between the two places daily, they go once a week and stay in boarding homes; there are no cedar hemlock forests on the Chilcotin Plateau; there are no trees in the Anahim Lake area with three-foot diameter butts; large machines called feller-bunchers cut down the forests on the Chilcotin Plateau, not teams of insolent fallers. Finally, the country west of the Fraser River is known as the Chilcotin, not the West Cariboo, unless, of course, you are a bureaucrat living in a cave somewhere in Ottawa or Victoria. There are other points that might enhance the authenticity of the novel, for example helicopters that lose power don’t drop out of the sky with a bang; pilots can actually land quite safely by free-wheeling the rotor.

Factual errors aside, Innes delves into topical issues like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Safe Injection Site with some sensitivity and clarity. He offers useful insights into the psychology of the drug addict, life on the street, and some of the root causes of the anger and racial unrest that exist between First Nations and non-First Nations people. He also speaks with some clarity about the Chilcotin War, which is still a sensitive issue in the area. He speaks intelligently about Native injustice and the root causes of alienation felt by marginalized people. His comment on the pine beetle epidemic is current. I like the way he humanizes the characters within the RCMP hierarchy, from inspector, sergeant, to rookie auxiliary.

In his conclusions, told in the epilogue through the character of RCMP Inspector Mark Coswell, Innes offers his take on how racial tensions might be improved in the Chilcotin. He links murder, violence and aboriginal hatred toward white society to the injustices of the Chilcotin War of 1864. His hope that memories of the Chilcotin War will fade as the elders pass on is perhaps a bit naïve.

As a resident and observer of this region, I’d say First Nations anger stemming from the Chilcotin War is directed more at governments than at white guys. The incident of 1864 serves as a healthy reminder to the Tsilhqot’in that it is their prerogative to protect their land from outsiders, governments, or corporations that improperly encroach on their territory.

While it is the prerogative of a fiction writer to use artistic license and creativity in making up names for hotels, streets, towns, and even for tribal police detachments that don’t exist, it would behoove Innes to do more research on the places he uses for a setting. With a few name changes Murder In the Chilcotin could easily be plunked down in Saskatchewan or Northern Ontario because the tone of the novel doesn’t reflect the character of the Cariboo Chilcotin.

Murder in the Chilcotin
By Roy Innes
Edmonton: NeWest Press 2010 *** 330pp, $19.95 paper