Reviewed by Jim Napier
In August 1905 in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, the Orford Mountain Railway is being extended, and a construction gang is busily engaged in clearing the woods, preparing the ground, and laying track for the new line. The work is emblematic of the promise of the new land (Canada itself is less than forty years old) and the ambitions of its largely immigrant population.
On an otherwise unremarkable day, two lads are travelling along a railway right-of-way when tragedy strikes. Someone steps out of the nearby woods and fatally shoots Ralph Adosca, a twelve-year-old boy riding a horse and accompanied by a second, older boy, Richard Todd. The latter turns to see the assailant, but he only manages to catch a glimpse of someone carrying a long gun disappearing into the woods.
The murder takes place just outside the community of Richmond, and the nearest police headquarters is in Sherbrooke, some distance away. High Constable Roderick Moe is summoned to investigate the death, and he travels to Richmond.
The victim Ralph Adosca had been part of a railway work gang working to construct a new line through the wilderness. His young age is explained by the fact that he is the youngest son of the camp cook, Frank Adosca, and earned his keep by performing errands at the camp.
High Constable Moe has his work cut out for him: the forensics of the day were, by contemporary standards, extremely limited, and there were no eyewitnesses beyond the victim’s friend, who had only a fleeting glimpse of the assailant. Moreover, everyone who might be considered a suspect – the lad’s co-workers in the work gang – had alibis, as they were working together, some distance away from the scene. Finally, the question of motive was perplexing. The boy was well-liked, and had no enemies, nor did his father. No one could offer a reason for what seemed such an arbitrary and brutal death.
Finally, the boy’s violent death had not been the only criminal act of recent days, even of the immediate region. A boy had also been murdered in nearby Farnham, and the paymaster for the railway had been the subject of an attempted robbery, though he had managed to escape with the payroll intact.
It is, we learn, a tale spanning generations, and later residents of the region will also have a role to play in solving the mystery. So before the reader’s journey has ended he or she will have moved to wider venues, and learned something of the diverse backgrounds of the men and women who contributed to the history of the Townships region.
As mentioned above, Murder on the Orford Mountain Railway is set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, near the thriving community of Richmond. As someone who lived in the region for over thirty years, and who has made numerous trips to Richmond and its environs, I can attest to the author’s accuracy in describing the setting. But more importantly, Fonda has captured the atmosphere of the place and the times. It is a region on the fringe of the frontier, still defining itself, with isolated farmhouses, dirt streets and where people’s behaviour is shaped not by omnipresent officers of the law but by the norms of civilized behaviour—at least most of the time.
Much of the story is related through the eyes of a contemporary narrator, an archivist who is giving a talk at a gathering of members of the Richmond County Historical Society. His own words are interspersed with PowerPoint slides illustrating newspaper accounts of the events taken from the day, together with other documents. So the reader is transported back and forth across time, viewing events as they occurred, or later, with the benefit of hindsight. As a result, some readers may find themselves confused about whether Murder on the Orford Mountain Railway is a strictly factual account of events of the day (mostly August of 1905), or whether it is a work of fiction. The answer is that it is a skillful blend of both. Although much of the book, like many good novels, is grounded in historical fact, Murder on the Orford Mountain Railway is a work of the imagination, set against a well-researched narrative of life over two centuries ago, when Canada was still being formed. As such it is an engaging step back in time, one that will leave readers enlightened and engaged about our forebears and the world they lived in.
The author of three nonfiction books and a collection of short stories, Nick Fonda has earned a reputation for careful and accurate scholarship. In his latest effort, he has chosen a challenging project, creating a tale that is midway between a piece of historical fiction and an account of true crime. Readers will be best served if they ignore the academic question of just where to place Murder on the Orford Mountain Railway within the framework of literary endeavours, and instead set out to enjoy an informed and entertaining piece of writing for its own sake.
Murder on the Orford Mountain Railway is published by Baraka Books.
Jim Napier is a novelist and 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 novel in his series, Ridley’s War, was released in November of 2020. He can be reached at jnapier@deadlydiversions.