Journalists can have too much information. Tiny details are collected and never used; stories can be too difficult to prove, voices fall away, and good stories can disappear in a fast-paced news cycle, never quite making the deadlines. But reporters still have that information, somewhere, stored away. In Where the Bodies Lie, Mark Lisac puts the collected details of his 30 years as a reporter, columnist and publisher in Alberta to good use. It’s a Raymond Chandler-esque take on prairie politics that uses the unique characteristics of Alberta politics and small-town gossip to create an engaging story of intrigue.
Lisac’s main character Harry Asher is a lawyer, and close friend, of the current Premier of this province, which Lisac never names, noting only it’s “to the east of the Rockies.” Asher is asked to turn investigator when a cabinet minister is convicted of the murder of his local constituency executive—the minister admits his guilt, but never his motive. It leaves the Premier wondering just what details are left behind that could prove problematic to his political goals. He sends Asher to find out. It’s a case that takes Asher into the history of a political dynasty and the personal affairs within. The intrigue works in a setting not many would expect, but plays well on the trappings of Alberta’s particular brand of political dynasty.
Lisac writes about the way political secrets are kept, alliances are formed, and moral slips are justified in the name of the greater good of the province. The scandal itself is almost beside the point as Lisac has Asher work through the layers of connections and cover ups. And enough reality is present to leave you wondering which rumours Lisac really did overhear.
Lisac’s descriptions are deliberately and delightfully vague yet completely revealing. In many spots Lisac won’t name the exact location his characters occupy, just vivid descriptions where a knowing audience can acknowledge the wink. He drops small nods to Alberta pop culture and local political stunts, with Asher at one point quoting Ralph Klein’s cure to the BSE crisis “shoot, shovel and shut up,” and at one point, getting to the heart of the mystery, discovering he was working with people who had forgotten just what the difference is between party and government. It works well to set a tone rather than overwhelm with sentiment and give those Alberta politics junkies a quick smile.
The book is full of lovely scene-setting that demonstrates an admiration of the Prairies and the inherent dangers of snow falls and vast highways and small-town gossip.
The book works for both Alberta politics junkies who have always wanted to speculate on rumour and gossip, but it is much more than conveying a local scene and solving a murder. Lisac’s backdrop may be the political scene, but his story is in the heart of his main characters, their flaws and aspirations. He is an elegant and efficient writer and sets lovely scenes and characters, creating a murder mystery with twists and engaging characters.
By Mark Lisac
NeWest Press, 246 pp, $20.95