Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
The inspiration for founding the Ottawa Review of Books in September 2014 came from reading The Devil’s Making, an excellent, but little-known novel by Canadian-British writer Seán Haldane. Because it was published by Haldane's own micro-press, Rune Press, and the even smaller Vancouver-based Stone Flower Press, traditional book review sites (most of them now defunct) didn't deign to give it a read. And that was despite the fact the novel won Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. So, to right this slight, I wrote ORB's very first review and set up the website. If you want to go down memory lane, here is the link to that review. Nine years and hundreds of reviews later, I am delighted to present in this issue of ORB, An Evil Tale I Heard, the sequel to The Devil's Making, albeit with a sense of sadness that the author will not be able to read this review himself. Sean Haldane passed away last spring after a short illness. A brilliant neuropsychologist, poet and novelist, he will be sorely missed.
An Evil Tale I Heard returns us to the protagonist of The Devil's Making, English policeman Chad Hobbes, who solved the mystery of the mutilated body of a British settler on Vancouver Island in 1869, when the island was still a British colony. Now happily married to his Tsimshian wife Lukswaas, Chad decides to return to England in 1871. On his way, he is asked to solve a murder in another British colony, Prince Edward Island. PEI is in the midst of political upheaval, with those who want to join Canada and those who want to remain independent. The victim, Marie Évangéline Harris, is the daughter of one politician and the wife of another, and politics are suspected behind her brutal murder. Only an outsider like Hobbes can be entrusted with the investigation.
What carries the novel is not only the excellent prose and the page-turning suspense, but also the extensive historical research that Haldane, who worked in PEI for several years, has done to recreate the island's society in the run-up to its entry into Confederation. I was fascinated by the dynamics between the island's Acadian population, the more recent Scottish settlers (many of whom spoke Gaelic) and the indigenous Mi'kmaq population. On a personal note, some of my own family lived on the island in one of its Gaelic-speaking communities during this period, and I benefited from Haldane's research into these community dynamics to better understand my own ancestry. As a neuropsychologist, Haldane understands the importance of bringing history to life by dramatising it through fiction, and he does this much better than most writers I know.
A second aspect of the novel that fascinated me was how skilfully he modelled the dialogue on believable nineteenth-century speech patterns. Whether this was deliberate and accurate, or simply a reflection of Haldane's mastery of the English language, I cannot say. However, the dialogue sounds extremely authentic in the exchanges between educated English gentlemen, colonial gentry, rough and tumble islanders and the many other groups in the book.
To his credit, Haldane does not shy away from the blemishes of Canadian history. His objective account of the injustices done to the Mi'kmaq and Acadian people come through loud and clear. But there is an equal injustice done to the Scottish Highlanders, who were economically cleansed from their traditional farms by greedy landlords and then exiled to British North America. Haldane also explores the widespread Fenian sympathies of Irish immigrants to Canada and their opposition to British imperialism. But the novel is not just about politics and crime. Haldane does an excellent job of exposing the abuse of children in both Catholic and Protestant orphanages and the subsequent trafficking of girls and boys who had reached the age of majority, then twelve. In many aspects of his writing, Haldane is clearly an iconoclast and a freethinker, and this is refreshing in an age when groupthink and self-censorship are so prevalent in fiction writing.
I would have liked to end this review by saying, "We look forward to seeing what this exciting writer has in store for us next." Sadly, I cannot. But I will say without reservation that Haldane's two novels have already entered the canon of excellent Canadian fiction.
An Evil Tale I Heard is published by Runes Press and republished and distributed by Guernica Editions.