The Main by Trevanian
By John McFetridge
John is the author of EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE, LET IT RIDE and DIRTY SWEET. You can find him at Do Some Damage as well as his own blog
A couple weeks ago, Gerard Saylor talked about two Montreal-set novels by John Farrow (the pen name of Trevor Ferguson), City of Ice and Ice Lake and that reminded me of the first Montreal-set crime novel I read, The Main, by Trevanian (pen name for Rodney Whittaker).
Back in the 70’s when I first thought about trying to write stories and I mentioned that to my father he handed me The Main so I could read a book set in familiar territory. At the time the book had no impact on me, I just didn’t get it. Then when I thought about doing this Friday Forgotten Books about it I was very happy that two minutes (and less than ten bucks) later I was reading it on my Kindle app. So, thanks Three Rivers Press.
Now, the book. It’s melancholy. Well, it’s set in Montreal in late November during what the characters refer to as, “pig weather,” so yeah, it’s melancholy – it gets dark early, it’s cold but it hasn’t snowed yet so it isn’t even fun. Like the John Farrow novels with “ice” in the title, I guess that’s the most significant thing about my hometown but I have to wonder, why there are no novels set in the summer during the Montreal Jazz Festival or the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival or even the Grand Prix?
And the main character is pretty melancholy, too. Lieutenant LaPointe is a widower still mourning the loss of his beloved wife twenty-five years earlier. He still ives in the same apartment and has changed nothing. Although he has been promoted many times he still acts as a beat cop walking up and down Rue. St. Laurent, the Main, the street that once divided English and French Montreal before the English part of the city moved further west and the centre became a much more multi-ethnic ‘mosaic’ as we say in Canada instead of the American ‘melting pot.’ In the beginning of the book (which goes on a long time, there’s a lot of description here of people and places – this could be written for Patti) LaPointe is playing cards with his friends, Moishe the concentration camp survivor, David another recent widower and a priest, Father Martin, who feels he’s lost his flock. And instead of playing cards Moishe leads them a long discussion about the difference between a crime and a sin. Barrel of laughs these guys.
Oh, and we find out early on, before we even get to the body (this is a murder mystery afterall) so I don’t even know if it qualifies as a spoiler, that Lieutenant LaPointe has an inoperable heart condition and won’t make it through the winter.
So, it starts out depressing and gets worse. Why is this book forgotten?
Let’s just say the fifty-something me appreciates this a lot more than the teenage me did.
When the body finally does show up it’s a truly unlikable guy – a young man, probably a criminal illegal immigrant just stopping off on his way from Italy to New York, known on The Main for his sexual prowess with too-young women. So his murder may not be a sin but it’s certainly a crime and it’s on LaPointe’s “patch” so the old cop takes over the case from the homicide detective it’s been assigned to and gives it a full investigation. And he takes over the other cop’s “Joan,” the young cop he is training. This device gives LaPointe the chance to expound on his views to someone – and his views are sort of the left-wing version of Dirty Harry. Yes, the politicians and the police brass with their political correctness and over-concern for the “rights” of criminals has made being a cop impossible but for LaPointe the real problem is that it makes it impossible to protect the citizens of The Main who are never far from the centre of his thoughts – the citizens who are too poor to be of any concern to the politicians or the rest of the police force.
The Joan is a college educated Anglo named Guttmann who would prefer to do things ‘by the book.’ Still LaPointe and Guttmann make a good team.
At one point a character says about himself that he, “looks for philosophy where there is only narrative...” and that’s a good description of the book – there is more philosophy than narrative and that’s what makes The Main such a great book.
It’s become a bit of a cliche to say that setting is a character in mystery fiction but there’s no doubt Montreal, or at least Rue St. Laurent, is a main character here and it’s captured extremely well.
At some points in The Main, though, it’s hard to tell if the book is a serious murder mystery or a satire checking off requisite cliches as it goes. Trevanian has said he was disapointed the critics didn’t realize his novel The Eiger Sanction was a “spoof” so he followed it up with an even more intense spoof, The Loo Sanction.
He shouldn’t be disappointed, though, because when the books are so well-written and the characters so well-developed most of us will just be grateful and keep reading, spoof or not.
I have little doubt that if The Main were one of a series, Lt. LaPointe would be among the very best and well-known fictional detectives. And now comes news that the terrific Don Winslow has written a sequel to Trevanian’s Shibumi, so you never know, there may yet be more stories with Lt. LaPointe on The Main in Montreal.
The rest of today's links can be found at Kerrie Smith's blog, right here.
Welcome a new contributor to the group, John Norris. You can find him here.
Richard Robinson, returning to us from a galaxy far away, is here.
Richard Pangburn is here.