Brian Brett meets his Magus:
The Saltspring Island writer creates a multi-layered mystery
Vancouver Sun Saturday, January 10, 2004 Page: F23 Section: Books
Byline: John Moore
Source: Special to the Sun
Perennially popular, suspense fiction is also the most ecumenical of genres, embracing such disparate talents as Sue (M is for Moronic) Grafton, the great noir masters Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the best writers of almost every other generation.
With Coyote, Saltspring Island poet Brian Brett pulls the wings off a few genre cliches in one of those rare, hypnotically compelling novels that keeps the reader turning just one more page until the dawn-song of birds warns it’s already a long tired day.
In the mid-1960s, John Fowles’ The Magus made sleep deprivation a mass phenomenon. It’s that book Coyote most resembles, not only because of its island setting but also because Brett weaves a multi-level novel of ideas out of a background of lesser murders as we wait for the main event.
Both Fowles and Brett obey Agatha Christie’s first rule of plot drama: Isolate the main characters (in a country house or castle, on a ship or a train). The Magus was set on a Greek island; Coyote is set on Canada’s equivalent, one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands, home to hedonists and eccentrics. In literature, islands have always been magical places where time and social conventions are suspended, old identities lost and new ones found.
In Coyote, a character named Brian turns up on the island and begins making inquiries of the locals — the usual gang of ideological dropouts, hemp weavers, organic farmers, crystal therapists and dreamcatcher sales reps. Once the grapevine has made his presence known, Brian is allowed to find the person he seeks: “old Charlie,” an aging hippie who lives in a treehouse above his garden.
Brian suspects Charlie of being Coyote, a notorious late-1960s eco-terrorist who freed animals from testing labs and crippled a huge petrochemical facility before disappearing, officially believed to have died in his last raid.
His reasons for hunting Coyote are personal and are only revealed after he moves in with Charlie and they engage in a Nietszchean”re-evaluation of all values” while subtly stalking each other in a dangerous battle of wits.
As in The Magus, a woman links the two, but in Coyote she is dead, a murder victim lumped in with a number of murdered women from Vancouver’s east side.
Separating her death from the others draws into the story RCMP Inspector Janwar Singh and a subplot involving the procedural politics of the modern Mounties. When Singh visits the island as a guest at a holistic healing spa, he begins to recover from illnesses resulting from the internalized stress of life as a success-driven child of immigrants. He even discovers love for the first time while, only a few miles away on the island’s labyrinthine roads, Charlie and Brian are locked in a deadly debate crucial to his case.
Brett’s immense skills as a novelist show in the way he maintains taut suspense through a plot that mainly consists of people telling stories to each other. With old Charlie/Coyote in the role of Conchis (the magus of Fowles’ novel) and the odious Brian playing a similar role to that of Fowles’ shallow cynic, Nicholas Urfe, Brett challenges the long-term implications of the ’60s revolution in social morality.
Had he done this in a series of essays, he might have produced another weary critique of pop culture and goosed nobody but fans of Mark Kingwell. The popularity of the murder mystery genre has always been vested in its power to make social criticism a matter of life and death, and Brett exploits it here with vision and stylistic vigour.
He is the antithesis of the callow “spokesperson for a generation.” Coyote took half a century of living and 14 years of writing. The experience, wit, wisdom and sadness gained in that time are evident in every line.
JOHN MOORE speaks to Brian Brett about Coyote, a mystery in three senses of the word:
JOHN MOORE: Margaret Atwood put a mystery at the heart of The Blind Assassin, as if to help control the sprawl of a big book. Did the mystery genre’s demands for suspense and plot resolution help to keep you on track in Coyote?
BRIAN BRETT: It’s amusing you would mention The Blind Assassin. Coyote originally started out as a 100- page “symposium,” a Platonic-style debate between the eco-terrorist and the serial killer. It took 10 years to discover the plot and that was only after Atwood, who was writing The Blind Assassin at the time, practically had me by the throat on my deck [They have known each other since the early ’70s – ed.], insisting I tell her what the story was. To which I replied cheekily, ‘Life isn’t a story,’ and said it was about the complicated, interweaving quality of life — all the thousands of stories continuously happening. Then she got the brilliant idea of asking, ‘If it isn’t a story in the way we think of a story, then who is it for? Who is the audience?’ What popped out of my mouth was, ‘The boy, of course. The mutant boy.’ That stunned both of us. It had all fallen into place for the next rewrite.
JM: Did the conventions of the mystery genre sometimes constrain you, make you feel your shorts were too tight?
BB: I had great angst over even calling it a mystery on the cover. The mystery, of course, is a triple pun: a play on the Catholic ‘mystery,’ the mystery of how we live morally in the world, and the more common mystery of who kills who. I decided I had to take my chances that it might be mistaken for your standard murder mystery. If it goes to the usual mystery-genre reviewer, they’re going to have some mighty trouble with a deconstructed mystery like this, romping across the genres. One publisher in England who was presented with Coyote as a potentially popular crossover literary mystery, said, ‘Great book, but sorry — I have no idea how to sell it.’ Hilariously, a publisher here in B.C. rejected it because they expected ‘a more literary book’ from me. When a publisher of Canadian literature could not consider Coyote a literary book, I knew I was really in for a ride.
JM: What if Canadian literature doesn’t want to include direct challenges to the ethical and moral positions most of its readers accept as certainties?
BB: I’ve always believed that good writing does not have to be boring and that philosopy is part of the boil of life from which it erupts. I wanted to take ideas into dangerous territory with Coyote, to illustrate how expectations and results diverge so madly [and], mostly, to examine the fallacy of the logic of vigilante action and terrorism for a cause, any cause…. Most importantly, I was trying to explore the very human drive to find absolute solutions to moral issues for which there are no solutions. The need for absolute answers resembles ‘closure,’ our modern mythical answer to pain. Well, there ain’t no closure.