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Friday, May 11, 2018

Review of RAGGED LAKE by Ron Corbett (Frank Yakabuski Mystery #1)

3 Stars
I was checking out the 2018 Edgar Awards winners and nominees and came across this title.  What really caught my attention is the name of the protagonist, Detective Frank Yakabuski , since Yakabuski is my surname.   It is not a common name, especially with this anglicized spelling, except in the Madawaska Valley northwest of Ottawa. 

Detective Frank Yakabuski is sent to investigate the triple murder of a secretive family living on the Northern Divide where they built a ramshackle cabin near the almost-deserted community of Ragged Lake.  Yakabuski sequesters the locals at the local lodge while he conducts his investigation.  He quickly comes to suspect that a motorcycle gang with which he is familiar has moved into the area and may have been responsible for the murders. 

Readers should be forewarned that that this is a violent story.  The book begins with the gruesome murder of three people, including a child, and by the end, the body count is well into double digits.  Both the innocent and the guilty are killed. 
                                                                                                                  
The pace is uneven.  Early in the investigation, Yakabuski finds the journal of Lucy Whiteduck, the murdered woman.  From the journal, we learn about Lucy’s childhood, her time in the big city of Springfield, and her return to the Northern Divide.  The journal is necessary for important background information which impacts the present but its inclusion slows down the pace.  Then there is a protracted face-off scene where things happen at a frenetic speed. 

Apparently, this is the first in a series of books featuring Det. Yakabuski.  Considerable background information, therefore, is given about the man.  He is an army veteran who served with distinction in several of the world’s trouble spots.  As a police officer, he has earned the respect of colleagues.  He is definitely a leader who can think logically even in very tense situations.  It also becomes obvious that he is willing to bend the rules if he thinks doing so will cause the least harm. 

Some of the secondary characters emerge as interesting people since some effort was made to portray them in some depth.  The villains, however, are stereotypes; they tend to be totally evil with no redeeming qualities.  Yakabuski thinks of the inhabitants of Ragged Lake as “living cheek-to-jowl with true evil” and one character even says, “’There is someone in Ragged Lake who is nothing but evil.’”   And then a villain tells Yakabuski there awaits a new sort of evil, “some new sort of whacked-out freak.  Something truly fuckin’evil” which Yakabuski has “never seen before.”  Is this the prelude to another blood-soaked investigation?

It is the geography of this book which is frustrating.  In an author’s note at the beginning, Corbett mentions that since this is a work of fiction, all places are imagined and “there are no literal depictions of any city or town on the Divide.”  Springfield, “a northern city of nearly a million people” is supposedly the creation of the author’s imagination, yet he refers to Britannia Heights, Sandy Hill (which has the main campus of the University of Springfield), and Buckham’s Bay, all neighbourhoods of Ottawa.  Lucy even applies for a job in “a kids’ store in the Springfield shopping mall called Tiggy Winkles.”  I’ve visited Mrs. Tiggy Winkles in the Rideau Centre in Ottawa!  I attended the University of Ottawa in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood of Ottawa; on the eastern edge of that neighbourhood likes Strathcona Park.  Why does Corbett make it Strathconna?  Why bother disguising Ottawa as Springfield?  Why mention real village names like Cobden and then make up fake ones like Grimsly?  And why change John Rudolphus Booth, lumber tycoon and railroad baron of the Ottawa Valley, to James Rundle Bath? 

The Northern Divide is indeed “about four hundred miles” from Ottawa.  (I know this because for five years I lived in northern Ontario, not far from the Quebec border; about 25 kms away was a watershed sign which indicates that all waters north of this point flow into the Arctic and all waters south of this point flow into the Atlantic.)  Yet Corbett chose to name his Northern Divide town after an actual lake in the southern part of Algonquin Park? 

Det. Yakabuski is from High River, “the oldest Polish settlement in Canada . . . in the Upper Springfield Valley.”  Why not have him come from Wilno, located in the Upper Ottawa Valley, which is the actual first and oldest Polish settlement in Canada?  The surname Yakabuski is very common in the village of Barry’s Bay (10 kms from Wilno), the village where I was born.  I’d be willing to bet that is where the author saw the name on his travels between his hometown of Ottawa and Algonquin Park.  In Barry’s Bay, he might even have met a Frank Yakabuski!

Perhaps I have an unusual perspective on this book because of my name and where I’ve lived, but I found Corbett’s imagination to be strangely unimaginative.  He is almost insulting to the reader; it is as if Corbett expects his readers to be stupid.  Two characters in the novel have a conversation about an Englishman who claimed to be an Apache chief.  The reader is not to have heard of Archibald Belaney who called himself Grey Owl?

I was hoping to really like this book, but I’m afraid I found it only mediocre.  I am not surprised that it did not win an Edgar Award.