Reviewed by Jim Napier
Ottawa novelist Barbara Fradkin is an established presence in Canadian crime fiction. With three series comprising nearly twenty books penned over the past two decades, she had positioned herself as one of the leading crime writers in Canada today. Her efforts have earned her no less than seven nominations for Canada’s Arthur Ellis Awards for excellence in crime fiction, and she received the Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel for Fifth Son in 2004 and Honour Among Men in 2006, both part of her Inspector Green Series. Fradkin has also published three novels in her Amanda Doucette series, with a fourth slated for 2021. But today our attention is focused on Blood Ties, the most recent tale in her Cedric O’Toole mystery series, and every bit as good as anything she has written.
Lake Madrid, Eastern Ontario: hard-scrabble farmer and local handyman Cedric (“Rick”) O’Toole lives on what had been his mother’s farm outside the small town of Lake Madrid. He is relaxing on his porch one day when he spots a pickup truck in the distance coming down his lane. Cedric is a loner, and doesn’t get many visitors. But the man driving that truck is about to change his life.
When the truck pulls up near the farmhouse the license plate indicates the visitor is a stranger, far from his Alberta home. But as he steps from his pickup, almost the first words out of his mouth are “I think you must be my brother.” Cedric never knew who his father was; his mother took that secret to her grave. And he’s wary of this stranger, who seems so sure of his information. He introduces himself as Steve Lilley, and as Cedric gets to know the man the desire to bring some clarity to the mystery that is his life begins to take hold of Cedric, and he allows Lilley to stay at his house while they explore their respective childhoods, and the truth about the woman who may have been their mother.
Cedric isn't the only one with an unknown progenitor. Shortly before Lilley's mother died she told him that her husband wasn’t his biological father. A soldier recently from Afghanistan, Lilley is carrying his own past with him, and experiencing PTSD; but he offers to help Cedric clean up and sell the junk in his barn. Lilley hopes to explore stories of Cedric’s early family life.
Fradkin cannily draws upon her personal knowledge of the Shabot Lake area of Eastern Ontario, where she has a cottage, to set her tale, and it pays off in the rich atmospheric detail that convincingly portrays life in a small rural community. Similarly, the character of Cedric O’Toole comes through in Fradkin’s use of the first-person voice, the laconic cadence of Cedric’s speech, and his dry humor:
“I saw the guy coming half a mile away, the dust from his pickup blowing across my cornfield…. By the time the truck was halfway up my lane, the dog was off the front stoop and running toward it. Tail wagging, tongue lolling. Chevy never has been much of a guard dog."
A skilled storyteller, Fradkin shares with her readers the compelling odyssey of two grown men who have never met, pulled together by a common urge to make sense of their separate, yet somehow linked, pasts, and perhaps a shared future. It is a fine read.
There are four books in the Cedric O’Toole series, with a third, The Night Thief, released in the spring of 2015. Both The Night Thief and Evil Behind that Door were shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Best Novella award. The fourth, entitled Blood Ties, was released in the Fall of 2019. Never one to rest on her laurels, Fradkin is currently hard at work on the eleventh in the Inspector Green series.
Blood Ties is published by Orca Book Publishers.
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 second in the series, Ridley’s War, is scheduled for release in the late summer of 2020. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.