Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Criminal Minds: A Post-Mortem

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." – Raymond Chandler


The line-up was not the usual suspects. Three of Canada’s top murder mystery authors sat before the crowd, ready for interrogation: Ron Corbett, Barbara Fradkin, and Amy Stuart. The accusation? Writing suspenseful, thrilling, violent mysteries. The point of the inquiry? How can such lovely, seemingly normal people, write such grisly heinous crimes?


In hot pursuit of the craft of writing, participants in the Ottawa International Writers Festival embarked on an intriguing investigation into the chilling secrets behind the minds which generate Canada’s best mystery fiction. With Daniel Bezalel Richardsen as lead detective, a night of sleuthing commenced. Each author read a brief passage from their work and then joined together on stage as Richardsen unearthed the most devious and foolhardy tricks of their trade.


Accused No. 1, Barbara Fradkin, began with an admission that her friends often question how such a caring healer of souls can write about murder. Pleading not guilty, Fradkin said that the point of her writing is not violence. Instead, she argued that crime writers are always trying to set the world right. Her protagonist Amanda Doucette was born out of the headlines of “today’s modern chaos.” When Fradkin read news reports about the Boko Haram kidnappings, she asked herself: what is the story behind the story? What about the parents, the children, the aid workers? What happens in their lives after the headlines disappear? The character of Amanda was born. An aid worker on a cross-country charity tour, Amanda is trying to find redemption and a new path in life. Fradkin said her villains are ordinary people, not psychopaths. “I want to deal with us folks. What drives us to desperate ends?” There is a fine line between a hero and a villain said Fradkin. She wants her readers to ask: "What would I do in that situation? There but for the grace of God go I!” she told the audience. “We could all step over the line, but we could all step back too.”


Accused No. 2, Amy Stuart, also denied the charges. Stuart doesn’t see her books as violent. Her books are about normal people facing challenging situations. When writing, Stuart delves into the psychology behind her characters and explores what it means to love, to be lost and to lose, how we behave when we are afraid. She used location as a device in her best-seller Still Mine to place her protagonist Clare in difficult environments where the she felt lost and her sensitivity and reactions became heightened. Stuart’s books ask questions: how far would you go to protect the people you love? How far would you go to defend your values? Belief in today’s world is a moving target, claims Stuart. If a person believes something is true, they can be motivated to do terrible things in the name of that truth. In her writing, Stuart explores how far people will go and what happens when two people see or remember a “truth” differently. The lines of right and wrong are often heaped in complexities she pointed out. “I have three kids.” She told the audience. “What would you do to protect your kids?” she asked. Her answer, “There’s not much I wouldn’t do.”


Finally, Accused No. 3, Ron Corbett shocked the crowds when he outright pled guilty. “I like violence,” he said point blank to the onlooking crowds.  His hard-boiled admission had them glued to their seats like a fist to a bloodied mug. Corbett began his admission of guilt: “I wanted to write a violent story. . .  I wanted to write a gritty and unabashedly violent story.” But what were his motives? From where did Corbett learn his art of plotting? What were the sources for his gripping Frank Yakabuski mysteries about squatter’s cabins, fishing guides, and infamous biker gangs? Corbett said he takes his cues from his years as a journalist in Ottawa, as well as the pages of Canadian history books. “This country should own noir,” he told the captivated audience. By way of justification, he recounted the 1608 beheading of Jean Duval for plotting against Champlain. Heads were hanging on the gates of Quebec he told the audience. “This is a country that is made from violent stories,” said Corbett. “Nobody talks about it.”


Case closed. Guilty as charged.