Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
Fans of The Sixties folk music era will be intrigued by David A. Poulson’s latest Cullen and Cobb mystery. Mike Cobb is an ex-Calgary-cop who worked robbery and homicide. He is the Sherlock Holmes of the pair. The narrator, Adam Cullen, is a journalist and former crime writer for the Calgary Herald. Acting as Cobb’s Dr. Watson, he is the chronicler of cases. Harmonizing fact and fiction, Poulson unravels the story of singer Ellie Foster—a twenty-year-old folk singer touted to be the next Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. Foster, who is on the bill with Joni Anderson (later Joni Mitchell) that night, was abducted from the back alley of The Depression, a gritty, cellar coffee house at 1207a 1 St. S.W. Calgary on February 28, 1965.
Two of her musicians, guitarist Jerry Farkash, and bassist Duke Prego, were shot and killed; while a third, Guy Kramer took cover behind garbage cans in the alley. There were no leads. Ellie simply vanished. This cold case comes to the attention of Cullen and Cobb when someone breaks into Ellie’s granddaughter's car and leaves a CD of Ellie’s Last Song Sung. Hoping that she is still alive, the young woman hires the investigating duo to find out what happened to her grandmother.
The investigation proves to be difficult and slow and is peppered with details of Cullen’s daily tasks. How do you solve a fifty-one-year-old cold case? One hundred pages in, Cullen has nothing to show for his efforts and both investigators doubt their ability to solve the case. “Fifty years is just too damn long,” says Cullen (195).
In a last-ditch effort to unravel clues, Cullen and Cobb invite their families to analyze the lyrics on the CD. It is Ellie’s Last Song Sung—appropriately titled “Dream of a Dying.” As cryptic and coded as a folk song can be, the lyrics reveal clues to Ellie’s disappearance and reference the radical political dissidence of the time. This is a brilliant device as the reader is invited to sort the pieces of the puzzle along with the investigators.
Embedded in the novel is Cullen’s obsession with another cold case—the murder of nine-year-old Faith Unruh. Kendall Mark, one of the detectives at the time, was so disheartened by his inability to find Faith’s killer that he disappeared. Now, like Ellie’s song, he resurfaces. He’s changed his name to Marlon Kennedy and his race from white to black. Kennedy informs Cullen that he’s been watching and recording activity at the back of the Unruh home for 9,000 days. He’s hoping that the killer will return and he will catch him at last. When Kennedy must leave town, Cullen stays at his place, takes over surveillance, and begins his research into The Sixties folk club scene.
Readers who are familiar with Calgary and Ottawa will delight in the descriptions of these two Canadian cities. One of the threads Cullen follows is Ellie Foster’s personality change—something that occurred during her stint at The Tumbling Mustard, a coffee house and Ottawa hangout for political dissidents in the ‘60s.
Thinking that the crime might somehow be connected to the turmoil of the time, Cullen and Cobb delve into history. Lester B. Pearson—who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work in solving the Suez Canal crisis—was Prime Minister of Canada from 1963-1968. In February 1965, when Ellie was abducted, Pearson unravelled the new Canadian flag. But is this a reason to murder two men and abduct a twenty-year-old Canadian singer? The need to know Ellie Foster’s fate and the plot behind her abduction drive this story.
Last Song Sung is published by Dundurn.