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by Seán Haldane
Minotaur Books, May 2015
367 pages
ISBN: 1250069408

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This novel operates at frontiers: the new British colonists have built a tenuous civilization, the city that would become Victoria, British Columbia. The surveyors have not quite finished; the battle-lines have not yet been cleared of uncouth Americans who maintain a presence on San Juan Island in the wake of the "Pig War." Members of indigenous tribes make camp just down paths through the woods and sometimes display the gruesome heads of their enemies, just taken in war. Sometimes, they have been known to raid and kill in white settlements. In such uneasy places do words become unbound from old meanings and settle into something else.

Dramatis personae: Chad Hobbs, young man looking for adventure and a grubstake, fervent admirer of Charles Darwin; Augustus Pemberton, the magistrate who hires young Chad to become a policeman; Dr. McCrory, deceased and rather butchered, a fervent user of Animal Magnetism to cure ladies, and even - gentlemen - of certain troubles; Wiladzap, an ambitious male Tsimshian leader; Lukswaas, a female Tsimshian leader, beloved of Chad; Sylvie and Grace, working girls at the local dance hall; Quattrini, a prosperous businessman; the Misses Somerville, insipid, be-petticoated and frocked; their indomitable mother, whose husband was beheaded by Comax Indians; soldiers, acquaintances, churchmen, the jailor.

Dr. McCrory, of dubious background, has come of late from the Oneida Community in New York. He may have come under duress. The members of the Oneida Community are Perfectionists, which means that everybody has sex with everybody. Well, almost everybody. John Humphrey Noyes, the leader, has sex with all the virgins. The other men can have sex with any woman, as long as they get permission from the members. To avoid the complications of childbearing, they practice sex without ejaculation, a practice called magnetation.

In Victoria Dr. McCrory apparently "treats" an alarming number of the white female citizens, a practice that apparently got him disfigured and - um - defunct. Because the First Nations people of the area disfigure their enemies' corpses, Wiladzap, the leader of a band of Tsimshian who are camped close by, is arrested for McCrory's murder. As Chad finds through questioning, it seems more and more possible that an Indian did not commit the murder, but, well, it was an Indian crime, and, it's just too bad that an Indian may have to hang.

Chad, of course, must get to the bottom of things. But the narrative I have just finished here does not really tell what Haldane's book is about. To understand that, one might perhaps note that Haldane is a poet who also happens to hold a PhD in psychology. He has lived in America, Canada, and England. He practices neuropsychology, has run a small press, worked as a farmer, and can shoot an arrow straight and true. In Chad's journals, which comment on his mind as his body investigates the murder, the delight of the wordsmith, the fascination of the memory doctor, the traveler and colonist all find a place to sift ideas about how sex is related to love, and how goodness might be defined where three uncivilized cultures mesh.

§ Cathy Downs, PhD is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, April 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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