To Karl Alberg, a small town on Canada's "Sunshine Coast" looks like the perfect place to sooth a psyche that's been battered by too much big-city police work. Bees buzz among the roses, and the local librarian is attractive, intriguing, and unattached. Perhaps he has at last come in from the cold. But sunny towns can conceal a lot of secrets--some of them bleak enough to make a man yearn for some nice straightforward urban crime--P.  of cover.
Whether this perfect murder is 100% plausible or not, The Suspect, like I stated at the outset, if not a perfect novel, is a perfect read. But, damn, if this mystery, set amidst so much sunshine and blue sparkling ocean, among seaside cottages, with their tended gardens extending almost to the tide, is not a brooding, downright gloomy, read. Understand that the fog will snuff out the sunshine by the end.
"This part of British Columbia gets more hours of sunshine every year than most places in Canada—five hundred more hours, on the average, than Vancouver. Because its winters are also very mild, things grow here that will not grow anywhere else in the country—apricot and fig trees, even palm trees, it is said."
So much understated loss in this novel, only hinted at, a glimpse of it here, or there — a sunbeam exposing secret griefs, resentment, and rage — page upon sad but unputdownable page. Wright never overstates a clue — not once, but leaves it up to you, one of her rare readers these days, to scrunch up your eyes and forehead, to deduce and decide. How? Why? When?
What amazed me most about the novel, is how well Wright indeed made perfectly plausible this complex dynamic between, Karl Alberg, the transplant detective, claiming as bona fide friend, the murderer, George Wilcox, the very man whom Alberg knew beyond all doubt had committed the crime. But with limited manpower and investigative resources, Alberg just couldn't find enough evidence or establish corroboration between any two eyewitnesses, to pin it on him, to make the arrest. What an unexpected, emotionally powerful read, especially watching evolve an implausible-but-not-impossible friendship between adversaries develop like that, watching their friendship poignantly and unexpectedly bloom. A friendship only fully realized months after one of the men has died.
"The tempo of life on the Sunshine Coast is markedly slower than that of Vancouver, and its people, for the most part strung out along the shoreline, have a more direct and personal interest in the sea.
The coastal forests are tall and thick with undergrowth, but they come gently down to the water and are sometimes met there by wide, curving beaches. The land cleared for gardens is fertile, and the things growing there tempt wild creatures from the woods. In the sea there are salmon, and oysters, and clams; there are also otters; and thousands of gulls, and cormorants. There are Indian legends, and tales of smugglers, and the stories of the pioneers.
The resident police force is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with detachments in Gibsons and Sechelt. There are traffic accidents to deal with, and occasional vandalism, and petty theft, and some drunkenness now and then.
There is very seldom a murder."
Yes, George Wilcox has just murdered his eighty-five year old neighbor, Carlyle, when we meet him on the first page. Carlyle was apparently an "old acquaintance" (certainly not a friend), though by the end of the novel we'll discover the man Wilcox murdered was much more than an acquaintance, even if he wasn't exactly a friend. L. R. Wright gives away the who-did-it? right off the bat, providing the reader with more intimate knowledge of the crime's grisly details than afforded any character in the novel's except for the elderly perp. And what a disturbing way to meet someone, even a fictitious character, our "suspect" of the novel's title. In two previous (non-mystery) novels I've read that opened as violently — and I'm just talking about violence against animals here (i.e., Ron Loewinsohn's Magnetic Field(s) and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke), I've found it difficult to continue reading. But that was not the case with The Suspect, because unlike these novels, and for reasons I do not yet completely comprehend, I cared about this very believable, complicated man, the suspect, the murderer, the old man riddled by guilt and one too many demons. Chalk it up, as well, to Wright's extraordinary penchant for creating a conflicted and torn character with the same double-minded authenticity on the page. The Suspect transcends the mystery genre. Call it a mystery if you must, but call it literature too. No real surprise that Wright's first three novels were literary fiction.
L. R. Wright beat both Ruth Rendell and Paul Auster, among others, for the 1986 Edgar Award. Wright, to this day, remains the only Canadian author to have ever won the Edgar. Had The Suspect been nominated for The Booker Prize that year, as it should have been, I suspect it would have won at least one more award. Before L.R. Wright, 61, died on February 25, 2001, she got the last word in on her long battle against breast cancer: “She died, and the cancer died with her. It was a draw.”
Stories that begin, as this one does, with the reader’s watching the killer commit murder are sometimes known as “inverted” mysteries. The form, very familiar to anyone who watched Peter Falk’s Columbo series on television, was invented in the early twentieth century by R. Austin Freeman, a British writer whose detective, Dr. Thorndyke, was a forensic scientist. The interest was in the way small clues the reader may have missed in the opening description of the crime lead to the discovery of the criminal. In police procedurals, the identity of the criminal is not always known from the beginning, though it sometimes becomes obvious early in the investigation, and then the interest shifts to how the police will find the evidence to catch the killer.
About the time Alberg becomes convinced that the neighbor, whose name is George, must have done it, George becomes convinced that Alberg will catch him. But there are complications. The killer is the friend of the woman, a local librarian, whom Alberg began to date after she put a personal ad in the Vancouver paper. We suspect the Mountie will get his man, but will getting his man prevent the Mountie from getting his woman?
Listeners to these commentaries know that I prefer mysteries that stick to the problem at hand, move right along, and do not spend unnecessary pages on deep characterization and elaborate subplots. But I was taken with the way Wright handles the very human difficulties here. The killer is a crusty but amiable geezer whose judgment that the victim had it coming seems eminently fair. His friend the librarian knows him only as a frequenter of the library who brings her flowers and plants, sometimes gruffly insisting that she take them home rather than decorate the library with them. Alberg likes the killer, but still thinks, almost haplessly, that his duty requires him to discourage people from killing one another. I liked this one is spite of myself.
L. R. Wright is Laurali Rose Wright and is the only Canadian to have won the American Mystery Writers’ award, the Edgar Allan Poe award, for this mystery, which was published in 1985 and was the first to feature Karl Alberg. She wrote eight more mysteries with Alberg as the detective, and several more with a woman RCMP detective, before her death in 2001
This is a cross between a police procedural, a cozy mystery, and a psychological study of how murder affects the one who commits it. I think the third element in this is what makes this book interesting. The author did a good job limiting the number of characters and keeping them well-drawn.
Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel (mystery). Very good.
The other element though is the introduction of a new sleuthing pair, newly arrived Mountie Karl Alberg and local librarian Cassandra Mitchell. However they don't know that George is the murderer although both of them come to that realisation. They react quite differently to that knowledge.
THE SUSPECT is a cleverly written story on a number of levels and one of those that you come to appreciate more as you write about it. No wonder it won the Edgar for best novel in 1985.
Laurali R. Wright died from breast cancer in 2001 and there is a comprehensive biography on her official site that leaves us in no doubt about what a loss that was.
THE SUSPECT is a quick read, so if you can find a copy, read it, and see if you agree with me.
THE SUSPECT, read as part of my ongoing project to read Edgar Best
Novels in order. In THE SUSPECT, just as in THE VENDETTA DEFENSE, we know
from the outset who 'done it.' But here, each of the three characters
through whose point of view the story is told -- killer, policeman, and
a librarian with conflicted loyalties -- shows us a different aspect of
the case. The real mystery in THE SUSPECT is motive -- and in a way
that's even a mystery to the perpetrator. This book will almost
certainly end up on my 10 Best Older Books list for 2009. It's a
stunning combination of psychological thriller and police procedural.
I'll be looking for more of L. R. Wright's work, and am only sorry for
the relatively small number of books she wrote before her too-early
This is by turns sad,touching and disturbing. I understand this is the first of a series and I look forward to reading more by L.R.Wright.