Canada is justifiably lauded for many things, but gritty urban noir isn’t one of them. Unless, of course, you’re one of the cognoscenti who’s read John McFetridge’s (pictured right, in classic ‘having cake and eating it’ mode) ‘Dirty Sweet’ (2006) and ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (2007). Pared-down tales of Toronto’s dark underbelly, the novels have been favourably compared with Elmore Leonard’s Detroit-set stories for their smartly observed characters, sharp dialogue, and a willingness to go beyond simplistic characterisations to explore the complex nature of crime and criminality.
His latest offering was published last year in Canada as ‘Swap’, but arrives in the US bearing the title ‘Let It Ride’. It’s his best novel yet, a distillation of the elements that made the previous novels such compelling reading, and yet it’s a complex story of interwoven motivations that virtually defies a synopsis. John? Can you tell us what it’s all about in fifty words or less?
“My publisher would love it if I could,” he laughs. “It’s about how relationships change over time, how the balance of power shifts ... It’s about an ex-marine who comes to Toronto from Detroit to set up a supply line for drugs from a guy he met in Afghanistan who’s now a member of a biker gang. And he meets a woman who’s robbing spas and wants to rob the bikers. And there are cops ...”
Before John McFetridge, Toronto revelled in the name of ‘Toronto the Good’. Is it true that he’s personally responsible for the steep rise in Toronto crime statistics? Is it even safe to visit Toronto these days?
“Yes, this is true, the only crime in Toronto is in books, otherwise it really is New York run by the Swiss. No crime, clean streets, all the people friendly all the time. Honestly, though, almost everything that happens in my books has its roots in something that actually happened here, from the closed-down brewery being used as a giant grow-op to the eight bikers killed in one night, to the highest ranking narcotics officers on the Toronto police being arrested for drug dealing.”
As in all good crime writing, McFetridge’s tales explore how conventional notions of street-level criminality impacts on all strata of society, a pervasive poison that goes right to the top of the power structure. Is there a moral dimension to writing that kind of fiction? Or is crime fiction purely an entertainment that reflects the world we live in?
“If it accurately reflects the world we live in,” he says, “then I think that’s the moral dimension. I try to show the circumstances that allow the criminals to operate, the ways that they justify criminal behaviour to themselves as being just business, and the internal politics and the restrictions on the police that make it difficult to catch these guys. Any conclusions are up to the reader.”
McFetridge gets compared to Elmore Leonard quite a lot. Does that ever get boring?
“It’s certainly not boring yet, though he must be getting tired of the number of writers being compared to him. I think it’s a style of writing that’s almost a genre of its own by now. I think of it starting with Hemingway and short stories like ‘The Killers’ and ‘Fifty Grand’ and then maybe it split into crime and literary with Elmore Leonard, and everyone who gets compared to him in the crime camp, and people like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver in the literary camp.”
Are there any writers who make him you bite his fingers with envy?
“Lots. So many. And the great thing is there are more all the time, every year more writers come out with debut books that are so good.”
That said, McFetridge is of the opinion that there should be more good writers getting published every year.
“I know of a few very good writers,” he says, “who’ve had a number of books published, who are having trouble finding a publisher for their new work. More and more I see any book that falls outside the easy description, that’s difficult to categorize or take risks - all the things that literature should do - having trouble finding a publisher. I can understand the employees of the publishing companies having bosses to answer to who have shareholders to answer to, so the drive becomes the most amount of profit in the shortest time above all else, but that mentality isn’t really the roots of publishing.”
To that end, McFetridge has recently taken the radical step of setting up a writers’ co-operative organisation.
“The idea is a kind of novelists version of the original United Artists,” he says, “a company run by the artists. Democracy sounds like a great idea but it’s messy and hard to work on a day-to-day basis, but I’d like to try. If the co-op members are all people who love books and who love literature and that’s their main priority, then I think it’s possible they could do great things. I’m not suggesting it be a non-profit organization (at least not on purpose) but that the drive for the most amount of profit possible not be the main decision making factor all the time.”
It’s a fascinating concept, especially given the technological advances of recent years, which should in theory make it a lot easier for writers to connect with readers while minimising the number of middle-men involved in the process. For more info, clickety-click here ...
Meanwhile, do yourself a favour and check out John McFetridge’s superb ‘Let It Ride’. If its quality is anything to go by, Toronto’s Lone Ranger won’t be riding away into the sunset any time soon.
This article was first published in Crimespree Magazine.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.