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by Anthony Bidulka
Insomniac Press, April 2008
244 pages
$19.95 CAD
ISBN: 189717876X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Despite an early-on strangulation of a Saskatoon archivist in the airport parking lot, the sixth novel in the Russell Quant mystery series is the author's most playful to date. The dead man, who resembled the cartoon character Mr Magoo, had a "treasure map," which comes into Russell's possession. Actually the map consists of a set of five riddles that he must solve, beginning with the quatrain:

Begin where it ended,

For the first of Saskatoon,

Next to baby Minnie,

Margaret tells you what to do.

For the first half of the novel, the solutions one by one lead Russell on a scavenger hunt across the city and into its history. (A quick check on Google indicates that probably most, indeed perhaps all, of the sites and references included here are authentic.) Off and on, close on his tail is a white Ford F-150 bent on visiting mayhem or worse on Russell. Its front plate depicts "some kind of boat next to something that I took to be a beehive." It turns out that the plate represents another riddle that Russell must also solve.

The "treasure," once Russell finds it, proves to be a record of an indiscretion in the past. This fact causes him to suspect the case is really one of blackmail, either incipient or already in place. But among several candidates, just who is the person being blackmailed? And who is the blackmailer and therefore presumed murderer? Trying to figure that out takes Russell through the second half of the novel to its urban version of a literal cliff-hanging conclusion. Still, even during this part of the case, Russell enjoys playing a cat-and-mouse game with the various suspects and their entourage.

The novel even begins with a bit of metafictional play. The opening scene is set in Hawaii. In the Honolulu airport Russell aids police detective Kimo Kanapa'aka, the hero of Neil Plakcy's MAHU series of mystery novels. Then too, the novel Russell has brought with him is by Josh Lanyon, a most appropriate choice since Lanyon is, of mystery writers, one of the most cognizant of his literary heritage. His series hero, Adrien English, owns a mystery bookshop, and it just happens that in his last appearance (DEATH OF A PIRATE KING), Adrien was "looking forward to" adding the newest Bidulka to his stock.

Far along into the novel, the reader realizes that the Lanyon reference is also relevant in that Adrien is torn between two men he loves. Similarly here, Russell finds himself in the agonizing position of being in love with Alex Canyon, who has now appeared in half the series, and Ethan Ash, who first appeared in the previous novel, SUNDOWNER UBUNTU. Only now does the reader understand the sleight of hand Bidulka pulled with his last sentence in that novel: "For indeed, I too ... perhaps for the first time ... had fallen madly, deeply ... unaccountably ... in love. With someone else." All of us romantics misread the sentence badly.

The novel, despite its playful nature, tackles serious personal issues that Russell is facing. What is a person to do when he finds he deeply loves two people: one who loves him back and wants to marry him and one whom he barely knows and yet to whom he feels a stronger attraction? Is the situation even one of Russell's own making because, deep down, he is fearful of committing to anyone? Thatís what Russell's sister thinks and the question with which he wrestles.

It seems entirely appropriate to this novel that its emotional high comes, in a moment right out of the conclusion of Chaucer's TROILUS AND CRESEYDE, when the sound of laughter suddenly peals out during a wedding. A storm destroys the tent, but instead of letting it get to them, the grooms "threw back their heads ... and laughed. They were laughing so hard, they had to hold on to each other to keep from falling down.... We joined in. First me. Then the other attendants."

In contemplating the title, it is worth remembering that "aloha" is both a greeting and a farewell. The reader awaits the seventh novel to discover whether Russell does finally understand the implications of that conjugal merriment.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, July 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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