Nomad: Phonse Jessome, Disposable Souls

disposablesoulsPhonse Jessome’s grim, violent crime novel Disposable Souls is set in the city where I live, and in a city I’ve never seen. Reading it was a constant reminder of the point Ian Rankin has often made about his Edinburgh-set novels: they show a side of Edinburgh that tourists never see — and neither do most residents, even though it is around them every day. The physical landscape is the same, but the shadow city of his crime stories has a different population and runs on different rules. Similarly, the Halifax depicted in Disposable Souls has the same geography as my Halifax, but it’s not at all the same place.

Of course, the reality is that these two cities are one city: I am just, in my own everyday life, ignorant of and sheltered from the one Jessome describes, so much so that even his vivid commentaries on very familiar places were disorienting. His description of downtown’s Spring Garden Road highlights just this duality:

In the bright sunshine of the day, the sidewalks on both sides of the road are crammed with beautiful people buying beautiful things. Trendy office workers lug six-dollar lattes past panhandlers who stand invisible at the curb, empty cups in hand. The homeless sit huddled against fire hydrants and utility poles. Halifax doesn’t have a trendy Main Street or a Skid Row. Spring Garden is a little of both.

At night, the tide shifts, and Spring Garden is taken over by angry, young rich kids in torn jeans and baggy black hoodies. They scowl and bluster at anyone who walks past and then tweet about it on seven-hundred-dollar phones. The real thugs roll past in Escalades, looking for someone to shoot. Even they wouldn’t waste real lead on wannabe hoods.

sgrFor readers who don’t know Halifax at all, Jessome provides not just vivid description but a lot of context about the city’s history. That it never feels like info-dumping is because much of it is provided by his protagonist, Detective Constable Cam Neville, a former army sniper and escaped POW, who in his new role as a cop struggles to overcome both PTSD and his past as a member of the biker’s club Satan’s Stallions. Cam views his home town with merciless clarity and an unhealthy dose of cynicism. “Halifax is a navy town,” he explains;

A military moron named Cornwallis was the first to claim it. He started his career as a bedchamber servant for King Edward over in England. He managed to sneak out of the royal bedroom long enough to slaughter hordes of unarmed Scots. The blood lust impressed the King who, although reluctant to lose a man good with a bedpan, realized he had a new bully ready for battle. With no one left to kill in Scotland, the good King sent him off to clean up the royal mess here. Cornwallis built a fort on the hill overlooking Halifax Harbour and headed off into the woods to make war. He couldn’t find the French, so he drew [Cam’s Mi’kmak partner] Blair’s ancestors into a little game called genocide. The British say he won. Cornwallis didn’t procreate; Blair is here. I call that victory.

He’s similarly blunt about the shameful story of Africville:

For 125 years, the descendants of African slaves lived along the shoreline here. They built a tightknit and proud community in isolation and poverty. Africville was part of Halifax, but the city didn’t want it, wouldn’t provide sewer, water, or even police protection. As far as the good people of Halifax were concerned, Africville was a shantytown to be ignored. The city put the open-pit dump beside it and set up sewage lagoons nearby to drive home the point.

Then, one day, Africville mattered more than it wanted to. The people were evicted, and late one cold night in 1969 heavy equipment swept in and demolished the church. The last house was flattened within a month. The city called it urban renewal. Halifax needed a new bridge, and Africville was in the way. The suddenly homeless people were jammed into inner-city slums and ignored for decades. Some of the toughest gangs in the city came out of those inner-city kitchens where bitterness and frustration still simmer.

cornwallisWe learn almost as much about Cam from these accounts as about Halifax, and, again like Rankin, Jessome also uses this contextual material to emphasize the relationship between social and historical conditions and the city’s distinctive patterns of crime and violence.

Disposable Souls alternates between Cam’s first-person narration and third-person narration that moves around among other characters in the tense unfolding drama. Cam is a well-realized character: tough, angry, brave, loyal. His voice is dominated by the anger and the toughness, and after a while I did find myself wishing for more nuance: not just Cam but the book as a whole seemed too much all in one key, and that a particularly rough, grating one. Disposable Souls is a little bit too hard-boiled for my own taste: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. On the other hand, it’s perverse to expect a story about murder, child pornography, and biker gangs to be “enjoyable” — this is the paradox of all crime fiction, of course, that it offers up horrors as entertainment. In my detective fiction class I often raise questions about this ethical problem, especially when we read Agatha Christie or other writers of Golden Age or puzzle mysteries. The  writers of hard-boiled detective fiction and police procedurals are generally credited with making mystery fiction both more literary and more morally weighty by infusing it with realism, and on those grounds, Disposable Souls is definitely a success. There’s nothing amusing at all about its crimes, and Jessome effectively immerses us in the entirely unpleasant world where they take place. That I prefer my Halifax is a reflection on me more than on the novel!

Disposable Souls is well-told and skilfully plotted. I finished it, however, wondering what else it was, if anything. If I were to assign it in my detective fiction class, for instance, what (besides local color) would it bring to our discussions? I’m not sure what its deeper thematic burden is: I couldn’t see how its particular case stood, for instance, as symptomatic of anything more general, rather than as a case study of a hypothetical but sadly plausible scenario. There’s a lot of talk about rivalries between the regional police and the Mounties, but that felt either personal or bureaucratic, not especially political. The contrasting ethos of the police and the Stallions might be a fruitful avenue to explore, particularly in a course where we will already have talked about the dangerous appeal of vigilantism; I think Cam’s military background and its psychological aftermath would also make for an interesting comparison to Knots and Crosses, where Rebus’s SAS training is a crucial part of both his character and the case. I also don’t want to underestimate the interest and value of thinking about crime as a local issue. Certainly Disposable Souls has already made me think differently about this place where I’ve lived for over twenty years — about aspects of the city I’ve otherwise confronted only through newspaper headlines — and there’s something to be said for bringing our classroom discussions of justice close to home.

Regardless of whether I decide to teach it (and I’m very tempted to), I am glad I’ve read it: it’s the first Canadian crime novel I’ve read in a long time that has really made me sit up and take notice, and I’m grateful to Nimbus for sending me a review copy.

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