Reviewed by Jim Napier
One of a reviewer’s delights is running across a promising debut author. Recently I had the pleasure of reading Canadian J. G. Toews’ recently-released first work, Give Out Creek, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Newspaper reporter Stella Mosconi lives in the mountain community of Nelson, B. C. with her husband Joe and their two children, Nicky and Matt. Something of a fitness freak, Stella is cycling to work on the outskirts of the town one morning when she spots a police car and a uniformed officer in the distance. As she approaches she recognizes Ben McKean, an old high school friend and something of a heartthrob. His attention is fixed on a rowboat off the shore of Kootenay Lake, seemingly abandoned. Stella realizes the boat belongs to an elderly neighbour, Lillian Fenwick. People were sometimes careless about tying up their boats, but Stella is surprised that Lillian, a stickler for detail, would have left her boat unsecured. She has a job to get to, though, and it’s only after she arrives at the town’s newspaper that she learns the police have taken a special interest in the scene. She takes off on her bike for the lake and arrives to find two police cars blocking the road and a police launch towing the boat to shore. Not one to be easily deterred, she moves to a nearby bridge and positions herself for a good view as the boat passes beneath her. But when it goes by, Stella sees it is not empty: there is a body in it, and it is the body of her friend, Lillian Fenwick.
The police begin by questioning Lillian’s housekeeper, Nina Huber, who says that Lillian had left the night before to visit Vanessa Levitt, a friend across the lake. As a reporter – one of just two on the tiny newspaper – Stella is quick to stake her claim to the story. But it isn’t just about her job: Lillian was a dear friend, and when she learns that Lillian had set out the night before, close to dusk, to visit a friend across the water, Stella is skeptical: Lillian had macular degeneration, and normally wore sunglasses. She finds it difficult to believe Lillian would set out close to dark to row across the lake, and without a sweater as the nighttime temperature fell.
As Stella immerses herself in the events leading up to Lillian’s death she comes to appreciate the layered and nuanced aspects of small-town life. A former resident of Nelson, Max Huber has recently returned and taken up residence in a cabin near Lillian Fenwick’s home. Max had just finished a four-year stretch in prison for a botched armed robbery, and Nina Huber, Lillian’s housekeeper, was his ex-wife. Stella runs into another Nelson resident from her high school days, Carli DeLuca. She mentions her book club, which recently invited Henry Sutton, a retired life coach to speak to them about his book about socially responsible investing. Afterwards, several members of the club had joined an investment group that he administered. Sutton’s presence had changed the dynamics of the small group, and he was not the only new person in town. Even in the mountain community people were always coming and going, and when a stranger is seen near the school that Stella’s kids attend, she is concerned, but not alarmed. But as events in Nelson, B.C. further unfold we come to understand that even a small, seemingly placid community can be a microcosm of larger city life, containing a diversity of people motivated by a range of emotions that mirror the human race and often conceal very private lives.
Give Out Creek is unusually mature for a debut work, showing Toew’s insights into the multifaceted life of a small town. Her writing style is direct and unaffected, almost spare in its depiction of the people at the centre of the tale. We get a genuine feel for small-town life and the motives that can guide their actions. Characters are thoughtfully introduced, never foisted on the reader, and as we warm to some, we become cautious about others. It is a carefully-thought-out book, with believable characters set against an engaging setting, and should win her many fans. Let’s hope it’s the start of a promising new series.
Give Out Creek is published by Mosaic Press.
Jim Napier is a professional crime-fiction reviewer based in Canada. Since 2005 his book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian newspapers and on multiple websites. His crime novel Legacy was published in April of 2017, and the next in the series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2019. He can be reached at email@example.com