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by Anthony Bidulka
Stonehouse Publishing, June 2024
270 pages
$16.95 US/22.00 CAD
ISBN: 1988754542

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's been a year since readers made their acquaintance with private detective Merry Bell as she settled in Livingsky, a city in Saskatchewan which some might identify with Saskatoon. In the timeline of Merry's new life, it is now six months after her move from Vancouver and things could be going better. Although she had success and a little publicity with her first case, she is now barely getting by and has to moonlight as a fill-in security guard in order to make ends meet.

Merry had returned to the city from which she had escaped some years earlier in order to become the woman she knew she really was despite all appearances. But the medical interventions she needed in order to achieve this had left her broke. Vancouver rents were impossible. She now finds herself back in Livingsky, in an apartment in close proximity to a waste metal dump in the wrong end of town and a small office closer to the better end. She has made no real friends, despite the attempts of Brenda, another tenant in the office building, to befriend her. Nor does she have much in the way of a clientele.

But all this seems about to change. A new client has appeared, carrying a bundle of cash and asking Merry to see what she can find out about the disappearance of her cousin, Dustin Thomson. The request comes as a bit of a surprise, since Dustin is the star quarterback of the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team and the entire province is holding its breath, waiting to find out what has happened to him. The police are surely doing their best to find him. But the cousin is not sure, Dustin is Indigenous, and what happened to missing Indigenous people, mostly women, had not been treated with great concern by the cops in the past. Already the police are floating the possibility that the quarterback might have committed suicide, a possibility that no one who knew him can believe. Of course Merry takes the case.

She is still in the early stages of her inquiry when Dustin's body is found in the river. It is unclear how he came to be there and the rumours of suicide become more insistent. But what Merry has learned about Dustin leads her to doubt he would have killed himself. He appears to have been happy in his career and involved in helping young people who were struggling. After interviewing his roommate, his teammates, and several young people who knew him from his work at the social centre there is little more Merry can do at this point.

For the moment, attention shifts from the mystery to the characters. Brenda's husband Roger, who is an electrician by trade and has a true crime podcast as a hobby, tells Merry that he is a crossdresser who hosts his podcast as an alter ego named Stella. He would really like to work with Merry to develop his detective skills, but Merry is as reluctant to encourage him as she is to respond to his wife's overtures of friendship. But Roger will persist. He sets himself to uncover the source of anonymous, vaguely threatening messages that Merry has been finding in her office, slipped under the door. He figures that if he succeeds, Merry will be impressed and accept him as an apprentice.

The chapter that contains the account of how Roger came to understand himself as having as strong a character as a female as he does as a male is a moving one, as are all the chapters in which Bidulka explores the complexity of the identities of his characters, whether gay, straight, or impossible to determine. His sympathies extend to everyone who feels the profound loneliness experienced by those excluded from what appears to be "normal" society because of their difference. Now, at a time when it appears that the forces of conformity are on the march, anxious to expel or suppress all deviations from an invented normality, Anthony Bidulka's appeal for all to recognize and respond to what we share in common is compelling.

Meanwhile, the question of what or who killed Dustin Thomson is gradually resolved and you may be surprised to find out what really happened. But there is another, if minor, question left - who is responsible for the unsigned messages shoved under Merry's office door? Read the final chapter to find out.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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