Author Tags: Fiction
Fraser Nixon was born on the West Coast and has lived in Montreal, Toronto, Paris and Vancouver. By turns an actor, painter, electrical apprentice and hotel night manager, he has worked as a salesman of newspaper advertising, ice cream, opera tickets and men’s casual slacks. His first novel was a neo-noir novel about a hood on a crime spree through Prohibition-era Montreal, The Man Who Killed, selected as a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. His follow-up noir crime novel, Straight to the Head (Arsenal 2016), set in Vancouver in 1983, evolves from the theft of a drug shipment and $300,000 in dirty money by an Eastern European immigrant named Irina. Corrupt cops, bounty hunters and scam artists cavort in sushi bars, nightclubs and New Wave galleries.
The Man Who Killed (D&M, 2011) 1-55365-569-5
Straight to the Head (Arsenal 2016) $17.95 978-1-55152-638-6
The Man Who Killed by Fraser Nixon (Douglas & McIntyre $22.95)
from Noah Moscovitch
Fraser Nixon’s version of 1926 Montreal is not a pretty place. Bootleggers, politicians, prostitutes, toughs, grave robbers and addicts of all kinds crowd the pages of The Man Who Killed. And the city is a perfect match for its denizens—filthy and corrupt.
We first meet our protagonist, Mick, at the docks, staring out across the garbage, fumes and vermin. “No clean thing around the harbour,” he thinks, including himself. Tossed out of med school, recovering from morphine addiction, torn up over a failed romance, and essentially penniless, Mick has seen better days. He waits, smoking his second-to-last cigarette, for Jack.
An ex-Pinkerton agent, Jack is his adopted brother, and has turned up in Montreal recently, working as a bootlegger and small-time criminal. And Mick is just desperate enough to take his offer of “some dirty work, with a chance of trouble,” in return for a square meal. This first time Mick doesn’t have to do much, just cut off an escape route and watch while Jack threatens and beats a bought-off customs agent who is trying to “spit out his hook.” Easy enough, and Mick remains unfazed: “Life had shown me much worse.”
However, the next job, a smuggling run to the States, goes all to hell and Mick is caught up in more and more violence, as Jack struggles desperately to keep ahead of his debtors and figure out who sold them out.
Covering only just over two weeks, The Man Who Killed chronicles Mick’s descent into crime, and the rapid decay of his conscience. On the whole, Mick finds the process surprisingly easy. Partly this is due to his destitute circumstances and lack of alternatives. He briefly considers leaving Montreal to return to his father, a minister working in the backwoods of British Columbia, but decides he is too far gone. “You’re nothing,” he tells himself at one point, “not a mechanic of the human machine, not a son or lover but a criminal, a short-term ex-soldier unbloodied in war, an Irish Protestant, worst of both worlds.” And really it is this, his self-hatred and desire for destruction that makes it so easy to slide deeper into Jack’s world.
Much of Mick’s despair, and his unpleasant situation, stems from his rejection by Laura, supposedly the love of his life. Though whether he was really in love with her, or only what she represented—status—is never fully clear. Laura is higher class, cold and aloof, and looked at Mick with the same degree of contempt that he has for himself. He began stealing and selling morphine from the Royal Victoria hospital in order to treat her in the style to which she was accustomed. Then, after she abruptly broke things off with him, he began using morphine to numb the pain, thus beginning his downward spiral. He was eventually caught thieving, and forced to withdraw from McGill’s medical school.
Mick’s educated background, both as a minister’s son and university student, is never far from the reader’s mind. As Mick tells the story, the crude slang of the times is often overlaid with medical terminology and references, creating a strange contrast with the brutal events of the text. We thus have a constant reminder that Mick was not always a criminal, and that his life once looked very different from what we see of it.
Though the shift in Mick’s morals is rapid, he doesn’t wholly give them up without thought, and we see enough vestiges of humanity in his character to keep us engaged in his struggles. After the first time he seriously injures a man, Mick at first declares that he “didn’t care.” However, later when the opportunity presents itself he makes a point of asking after the man’s condition, concerned that the wound could have been lethal. The reader is left guessing about just how far Mick will be willing to go.
Though Mick plays the central role in the text, in many ways it is the city that is the most interesting character. Through language and various references, Nixon goes out of his way to offer as much immersion into Montreal of the 1920s as he can. Occasionally this can make for a difficult read, and between the old-fashioned slang and the medical terms I found myself cracking open a dictionary more frequently than I expected. But more often than not, it allows the city to come to life, in all its gruesome glory.
Montreal, as portrayed in the text, is toxic and addictive, and seems to leak into everything and everyone. Mick and Jack are endlessly drinking and sniffing cocaine in various taverns and hotels, or even just breathing the smog-filled air. The customs official from Mick’s very first job is later described as a degenerate gambler—the reason he is under Jack’s thumb in the first place.
Within this city, Mick’s downward spiral seems natural and expected. When he discovers that actress and fellow morphine addict Lilyan Tashman puts drops of Belladonna in her eyes before performances to make them “look bigger and brighter,” Mick’s medical training temporarily resurfaces: “You’ll go blind. It’s poison.” But Lilyan only laughs, “So’s everything.” 978-1-55365-569-5