The Suspect by L. R. Wright

Finished L.R. Wright's first mystery novel The Suspect (her fourth published novel) and I've had the unrelenting suspicion since finishing it that it is a perfect book.  At first I wouldn't give it ten out of ten stars, I thought to myself that maybe I'd give it nine, or 9.5, only because I'm not completely convinced that the forensics Wright depicted in the novel were as thoroughly fleshed out and considered as they would have been in so-called real life.  But, maybe, in 1984, in a backwoods town on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, reachable only by ferry boat, the crime was investigated as thoroughly as it could have been back then.  Maybe Wright got it exactly right.  In real life, would there have been enough evidence to convict the suspect, an eighty-year-old, cantankerous widower, George Wilcox?  Maybe not.  Maybe that's why Karl Alberg, the divorced detective on the case, could never nail him.  Maybe L. R. Wright thought up the perfect scenario for the perfect, spontaneous, unpremeditated murder, that not even Sherlock Holmes could have solved.

Whether this perfect murder is 100% plausible or not, The Suspect, like I stated at the outset, if not a perfect novel, is a perfect read.  But, damn, if this mystery, set amidst so much sunshine and blue sparkling ocean, among seaside cottages, with their tended gardens extending almost to the tide, is not a brooding, downright gloomy, read. Understand that the fog will snuff out the sunshine by the end.

"This part of British Columbia gets more hours of sunshine every year than most places in Canada—five hundred more hours, on the average, than Vancouver.  Because its winters are also very mild, things grow here that will not grow anywhere else in the country—apricot and fig trees, even palm trees, it is said." 

So much understated loss in this novel, only hinted at, a glimpse of it here, or there — a sunbeam exposing secret griefs, resentment, and rage — page upon melancholic but unputdownable page. Wright never overstates a clue — not once, but leaves it up to you, one of her rare readers these days, to scrunch up your eyes and forehead, to deduce and decide.  How? Why? When?

What amazed me most about the novel, is how well Wright indeed made perfectly plausible this complex dynamic between, Karl Alberg, the transplant detective, claiming as bona fide friend, the murderer, George Wilcox, the very man whom Alberg knew beyond all doubt had committed the crime.  But with limited manpower and investigative resources, he just couldn't find enough evidence or establish corroboration between any two eyewitnesses, to pin it on him, to make the arrest.  What an unexpected, emotionally powerful read, especially watching evolve an implausible-but-not-impossible friendship between adversaries develop like that, watching their friendship poignantly and unexpectedly bloom. A friendship only fully realized months after one of the men has died.

"The tempo of life on the Sunshine Coast is markedly slower than that of Vancouver, and its people, for the most part strung out along the shoreline, have a more direct and personal interest in the sea.

The coastal forests are tall and thick with undergrowth, but they come gently down to the water and are sometimes met there by wide, curving beaches.  The land cleared for gardens is fertile, and the things growing there tempt wild creatures from the woods.  In the sea there are salmon, and oysters, and clams; there are also otters; and thousands of gulls, and cormorants.  There are Indian legends, and tales of smugglers, and the stories of the pioneers.

The resident police force is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with detachments in Gibsons and Sechelt.  There are traffic accidents to deal with, and occasional vandalism, and petty theft, and some drunkenness now and then.

There is very seldom a murder."

Yes, George Wilcox has just murdered his eighty-five year old neighbor, Carlyle, when we meet him on the first page.  Carlyle was apparently an "old acquaintance" (certainly not a friend), though by the end of the novel we'll discover the man Wilcox murdered was much more than an acquaintance, even if he wasn't exactly a friend.  L. R. Wright gives away the who-did-it? right off the bat, providing the reader with more intimate knowledge of the crime's grisly details than afforded any character in the novel's except for the elderly perp.  And what a disturbing way to meet someone, even a fictitious character, our "suspect" of the novel's title.  In two previous (non-mystery) novels I've read that opened as violently — and I'm just talking about violence against animals here (i.e., Ron Loewinsohn's Magnetic Field(s) and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke), I've found it difficult to continue reading.  But that was not the case with The Suspect, because unlike these novels, and for reasons I do not yet completely comprehend, I cared about this very believable, complicated man, the suspect, the murderer, the old man riddled by guilt and one too many demons.

Chalk it up, as well, to Wright's extraordinary penchant for creating a conflicted and torn character with the same double-minded authenticity on the page. The Suspect transcends the mystery genre.  Call it a mystery if you must, but also call it literature.  No real surprise that Wright's first three novels were literary fiction.

L. R. Wright beat both Ruth Rendell and Paul Auster, among others, for the 1986 Edgar Award.  Wright, to this day, remains the only Canadian author to have won the Edgar.  Had The Suspect been nominated for The Booker Prize that year, as it should have been, I suspect it would have won at least one more award.  Before L.R. Wright, 61, died on February 25, 2001, she got the last word in on her long battle against breast cancer: “She died, and the cancer died with her. It was a draw.”


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