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A HUMMINGBIRD DANCE
by Gary Ryan
NeWest, September 2008
240 pages
$11.95 CAD
ISBN: 189712631X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

On June 30 Ryan Dudley is reported missing. On June 30, the year before, his housemate Tyler McNally went missing. On June 30, two years previously, a member of the T'suu Tina Nation, Alex Starchild, was killed in a hit-and-run by a four cowboys in a pickup truck. Alex lived only a few kilometers from the place where Ryan and Tyler lived with two other housemates. As Calgary police detective Harper says, "That's way too many coincidences."

The pattern is broken when the third housemate's body is discovered on July 4. Who is the murderer? Blake Rogers, the surviving housemate accuses Alex's grandmother, Eva Starchild, of being behind the incidents. But Harper's partner, Detective Lane, is not so sure. When they go to question Eva and she invites him to participate in a ritual sweat (the third-year memorial for Alex's funeral, it turns out), Lane characteristically accepts, while Harper holds watch and talks to Eva's simple-minded neighbor and to the teenage girl who witnessed the hit-and-run.

The certainty grows that more than one murderer is at work. Before the case ends, conflicting land claims and greed, homophobia and self-hatred, racial prejudice and revenge, and police brutality have all played a part. The two detectives' lives are endangered when they are twice fired upon: once at Eva's, once at Blake's, losing their police car each time. (Harper laconically muses, "Two cars in as many weeks. I wonder if it's some kind of record?")

The two detectives' problems with their expanding home life concern them as much as the case itself. That fact is a major part of what makes the Detective Lane series such a rich and satisfying read. This is the third novel, and while it can be read alone, the reader gains a richer experience by reading the novels in the order in which they were published. First came QUEEN’S PARK (2004), then the award-winning THE LUCKY ELEPHANT RESTAURANT (2006).

The meaning of family is further redefined here. This time Lane gains a teenage niece and a new dog, to join his lover, Arthur, and Arthur's younger teenage nephew. The niece has fled a polygamous sect before she was excommunicated; Arthur's nephew, because he suffers from cerebral palsy, was abandoned by his father after the mother died. Harper copes with his and his wife's new baby and the continuing problems of his own teenage nephew; the nephew relives his similar experiences as he mourns the loss of a friend who kills himself because of parental reactions to his coming out to them. "Throwaway kids," Eva calls them.

Each of the novels has touches of absurdist comedy – always understated, sometimes already passed before the reader catches on. Did Lane, hyped on drugs after having a bullet extracted from his rear end, actually moon his family at the animal shelter when he meets up with them to choose the new dog? That dog's origins smack of black comedy. The destruction of the two cars is right out of some sit-com. And it is sheer farce when one catches a glimpse of the dancers at an anti-gay social gyrating in happy oblivion to the lyrics of The Village People's "YMCA."

The author's skill is such that the reader never gets confused about who is who among the array of characters or lost in the telling of a fairly complex story. Upon rereading the novel, one discovers he has been scrupulously fair in laying out the clues pointing to the perpetrators of the different crimes. At the same time, the author respects that life can be mysterious, offering experiences that may never be fully understood. Arthur sums up at one point: "It happened. It shouldn't have, but it happened. Sometimes that's all there is to be learned."

Though Harper and Arthur in their absolute decency are thoroughly engaging characters, it is Lane who holds readers' attention, our finding out more about him with each new novel. Here, though the background information is still incomplete, we discover something of the traumas that beset him in his younger years. Once again we also see how his sensitivity to fellow humans, a sensibility that is fast being absorbed by Harper, leads them together to the truth of the matter.

This novel possesses a strong sense of a spiritual world, understood by First Nations members but only vaguely sensed, if at all, by the descendants of the European immigrants. Something happens to Lane in the sweat. Even he is not sure what it was, though it involved a vision of his grandfather. Lane lays bare the driving force behind all three novels when he says of his ancestor, "He taught me that looking out for kids was the most important thing an adult can do." At some point each of the characters pauses to watch the beauty of a hummingbird's flight; what the moment signifies is left up to the reader.

Few mysteries can stand a second, let alone a third, reading. The Detective Lane series becomes richer, more satisfying, with each rereading. I do wish, though, that NeWest would hire a proofreader who is as capable as its book designer. Too many tiny errors have slipped in (the past tense of "to lead" is not spelled "lead"). The book's layout is nothing less than elegant. It is a joy to turn the pages as one is pulled along by the sweep of the story.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, September 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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