Murder in the Monashees: A Mystery
November 4, 2013
Review By Jocelyn Smith
Russell Montgomery, an office worker from Vancouver, has come to the Monashee Mountains for one week in the hope of shooting a mule deer stag. Through his scope, he fixes a buck, seventy-five yards away. He fires, misses, gives up, and begins the descent to his vehicle. In the late afternoon gloom, a flash of colour catches his eye. He walks towards what looks like a bundle of discarded hunting clothing, which turns out to be a decapitated human corpse. “Montgomery recoiled in terror, falling backwards and striking his head against a tree. Stunned momen tarily, he saw trees and sky whirl above him. As his eyes refocused, he suffered yet another shock. Grinning down at him, six feet from the ground, was the corpse’s head, lashed to the trunk with a yellow poly rope placed between the teeth … creating a macabre expression. Just above the head, pinned by a large hunting knife, was a piece of waxed cardboard upon which was written a sign in large black letters: “DON’T FORGET THE TROPHY” (6).
A woman from the nearby town of Bear Creek recognizes the victim, or rather the victim’s head. It is that of Dietmar Kraus, a German student at the University of Victoria and radical environmentalist who advocates treespiking, a form of sabotage in which ceramic or metal spikes are driven into tree trunks to deter logging. The killer’s identity and motive are not known, though a likely candidate is a local property developer who is also a keen hunter. The investigation falls to the local RCMP Detachment and the Vancouver Homicide Unit. More killings and attempted killings follow, each apparently random. Fear overtakes Bear Creek.
Roy Innes, the author of Murder in the Monashees, is a retired physician who lives on Gabriola Island. He takes on large issues in this novel: homosexuality in the RCMP, tree-spiking, foreign involvement in the BC environmentalist movement, post-traumatic stress syndrome, masculinity, and the expansion of residential neighbourhoods into undeveloped countryside. Is a murder mystery an appropriate vehicle for these issues, and can Murder in the Monashees hold up under their weight?
Perhaps, and no. A more experienced writer might choose one or at most two of these issues as underlying themes for a murder mystery. A mystery novel that tackled all of them successfully would be a tour de force. It is more likely that each issue would receive only superficial treatment and that a writer would resort to clichéd characters and situations to represent all the issues and points of view that he wanted to cover in his work. And so in Murder in the Monashees, we have the RCMP constable who is afraid to admit that he is gay; the spunky, red-haired female reporter whose eyes are “an extraordinary emerald green and twinkled now with mischief ” (54), the buxom waitress, the supercilious German businessman with an “aquiline nose and startling blue eyes” (143), and the bored housewife who finds a new purpose in life caring for a widow and two children. That is not to say that such characters do not exist in real life. There is a certain truth in all clichés, simply because they represent characters or situations that we encounter again and again. The challenge for a writer is to portray fresh characters or to find new ways of looking at known characters. Roy Innes grapples with the challenge bravely but success stays just beyond his grasp.
Murder in the Monashees has its moments. A long section in which a member of the Vancouver Homicide Unit travels to Victoria to find out more about Dietmar Kraus’s life is excellent. Skilfully and with obvious expertise, Innes gives us a disquisition on the wines of British Columbia and California, told from the point of view of this homicide investigator (I have noted the names of several of the vineyards that Innes mentions and look forward to trying Blue Mountain champagne from California). In addition, passages that are narrated from the killer’s point of view show a keen understanding of motivation and are written with a depth and force that are missing elsewhere in the novel. And, as one would expect from a writer who is also a physician, the medical details are convincing. Unfortunately, these strengths are not enough to redeem Murder in the Monashees from its oversimplification.