Cops and bad guys make for many a book plot (and TV show plot, and film plot, and podcast plot), but it’s rather incredible how one tiny change — setting — can make all the difference to make it fresh again. Granted, the book I’m referencing is from 2001, but it felt fresh to me, which I suppose is a great compliment to a 21-year-old book. I’m talking about Giles Blunt’s novel, Forty Word for Sorrow. (Speaking of TV plots, they actually adapted this for a TV show in 2017.)
In this case, the book is set in the frigid, snowy, icy fictional town of Algonquin Bay in Canada. The usual cast of characters are here: Our protagonist, John Cardinal, who is a stubborn curmudgeon (but perhaps softy at heart, despite trying to hide it) homicide detective and steadfast in catching a killer even though his bosses think he’s barking up the wrong tree — they think the case of missing adolescents amounts to runaways in this small town, not murder — and on top of that, he’s being investigated by his partner, Lisa Delorme, who was shifted from the Office of Special Investigations to Homicide. Not only does Cardinal keep his distance from her upon the suspicion of her investigating him (for perhaps taking bribes and tipping off a local crime boss), but due to the masculine culture of the police departments of the day, he’s also skeptical of her as a woman. And of course, all of her male colleagues, including Cardinal, just have to take note of her “shape.” Blargh.
For her part, though, Delorme is a straight arrow, who does the work by the book, and made a name for herself in Special Investigations bringing down a corrupt mayor, hence why she’s tasked with seeing if one of their own (Cardinal) is dirty. I was kind of frustrated Blunt wrote her as out of her depth in homicide cases (for example, she almost made a blunder right away with evidence on one of the local murder scenes), though, and even a bit squeamish. On the whole, though, she was cast as saving Cardinal’s life at the end, so there is that.
Their boss, Dyson, is the uppity type who thinks the murders are runaway cases, and then he’s the one who turns out to be corrupt, not Cardinal, although Cardinal did take some money from drug dealers back in Toronto to fund his daughter’s education in Yale and his wife’s depression treatment in Florida. That’s where the soft side of Cardinal comes in. He has these moments where he wants to express his love for his daughter and instead, pushes that down and says something more banal.
I will give great credit to Blunt. Typically, I do not like books that delve into the killer’s perspective or point-of-view. That often makes characters less interesting than if we are seeing them through the point-of-view of the cop and/or victims. But in this case, I thought Blunt sketched out two genuinely unsettling, terrifying killers in Eric and Edie. At first, they reminded me of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters. Because in that dynamic, Eric was the sociopathic dominant one who preyed upon the depression and suicidal ideation of Dylan to go along with his plan to commit violence — which isn’t to absolve Dylan; he is still culpable, as is Edie here — and that’s how Eric in the novel is. He thinks Edie, who has terrible facial eczema, is ugly, but useful due to her worship of him. Meanwhile, Edie herself grows more and more violent under the tutelage of Eric. They obsess over historical medieval torture techniques to inflict upon their victims, who they refer to as “prisoners” and “scum.” Much like Eric and Dylan, they are also interested in filming and documenting (in Edie’s case, writing in her diary) what they do. But then it occurred to me, they could also be stand-ins for Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, who raped and murdered three minors (at least) in Ontario between 1990 and 1992, when they also would have been in their early 20s.
That Eric and Edie are basically kids only makes what they discuss and how they are all the more terrifying. Blunt makes note of this when the police do finally catch up to Eric (who later gets swallowed up by the ice), of just how small in stature he is, how much he resembles a mere boy. And yet. However, the interesting part is, the cops until the very last moment, even after catching Eric (and saving a hostage, their next victim), don’t realize he has a partner until Edie shows up at Cardinal’s house and shoots him in the stomach twice.
The way in which Blunt unfurls the case, both from the perspective of Cardinal and Delorme trying to work together to solve the case after the first body is found, with leads seemingly going nowhere until it all falls into place, and from Eric and Edie’s perspective of how their thought processes continue to devolve, is expert level. This isn’t a book that is trying to trick you. We know who the killers are, after all. Maybe Edie coming to Cardinal’s house at the end may shock some readers, but for the most part, it’s a game of trying to see if the cops can figure out what we already know and how they do it. It’s real shoe-leather police work, which I find more admirable than tough interrogations and such!
Also, in the end, Cardinal does gain more respect for Delorme, albeit, I wish Blunt was more … blunt about Cardinal reassessing his sexist attitudes toward her.
Back to the setting, I think the way Blunt wrote the fictional town of Algonquin Bay, as this sort of floating glacier away from the bigger cities of Toronto and Ontario, and then set a flame, thawing out of the evil that lurked below the surface, worked to such potent, brutal effect. I felt the sense of cold and dread that accompanied it. I felt the sense of isolation in this town, especially the wayward teens who became low-risk victims for two blossoming serial killers. And even among Cardinal himself, whose daughter is at Yale and whose wife is recovering in Florida.
If you like a copper story that’s not entirely new in its beats, but is set in a unique location, and will make you want to ignore your screaming bladder to see how it all unfolds, then I highly recommend this one; it is a great piece of escapist fiction.
In addition, this was the first book in the Cardinal series, and it makes me want to read more. It makes me also want to watch the TV series, at least season one since that is about Forty Words for Sorrow.