Growing up, Vancouver-born Charles Demers was a politically sophisticated fat kid with a void in sports and cars. These days he's still more widely known as a humourist than as an author due to his CBC Radio stints on The Debaters and stand-up comedy performances in clubs and at festivals.

Charles Demers' little-noticed novel The Prescription Errors (Insomniac Press 2009) was soon followed by a "no-holds-barred look at Lotusland" entitled Vancouver Special (Arsenal, 2009), a critique of neighborhoods, people and culture, featuring photography by Emmanuele Buenviaje. Demers' short essays were born of a friction between estrangement and engagement; his loyalty to the city is ambivalent but inescapable.

Or as his friend Kevin Chong wrote in an endorsement, "It's only fitting that a city with so many unlikely facets--its conspicuous wealth and conspicuously ignored poverty, its inscrutable WASPiness and inscrutable Asian-ness, its left-wing face and right-wing heart--should be both celebrated and excoriated by a writer with such multifarious abilities." Demers' concluding chapter 'Vanarchism' cites his affinities to the likes of philosopher George Woodcock, punk rocker Joe Keithley, labour historian Mark Leier and APEC protestor Jaggi Singh.

In 2010, Demers co-hosted at The CityNews List for television; then he made his debut as a playwright with his "East End Panto" version of Jack & the Beanstalk, staged in 2013 and 2014 as family entertainment--all of which led to a teaching gig at UBC Creative Writing.

Move over Bill Richardson. Having hosted the BC Book Prizes on several occasions, Charles Demers re-entered the literary world with The Horrors (D&M 2015), an A-to-Z compendium of all things awful. Demers gives new meaning to a 26-er by starting with "A" for "Adolescence", recalling his sexless teenage years in a Trotskyist sect. "B" for "Bombing" recalls the sickening sensation of knowing your comedy act stinks. "D" is for "Depression." "F" for "Fat." "J" for "Junk Food." "M" for "Motherlessness." And so on.

Demers is one of the brightest lights to emerge in B.C. literature since Ivan E. Coyote--as likeable as he is clever and socially progressive. Married with a child, Charles Demers co-wrote The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (and the Universe) with George Bowering in 2016--reviewed below.

ARTICLE (2017): City On Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes (Greystone Books $32.95)

Most of City On Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes (Greystone Books $32.95) provides images taken by Vancouver Sun and Province photographers of Vancouverites rising up to make their opinions, and often their anger, known to the powers-that-be. An accompanying Museum of Vancouver exhibition of the same name provides greater historical context.

In City On Edge the emphasis is pictorial-it's a parade of images from Squamish Chief Joe Capilano with a delegation of chiefs leaving North Vancouver to petition King Edward VII for First Nations rights in 1906; to the bloodied faces of relief camp workers demanding better jobs in 1938; to Grey Cup rioters in 1966; to pussy-hatted women supporting the Women's March in Washington in response to President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.

There's a brief foreword from Charles Demers and a short intro by Kate Bird who helped manage the photo library at Pacific Press for twenty-five years.


Primary Obsessions by Charles Demers (Douglas & McIntyre $18.95)

Review by John Moore (BCBW 2020)

One of the least comfortable dilemmas confronting human beings is a situation in which we must choose between obeying the laws that govern our society or doing what we know to be right. Sophocles dramatized it in his play Antigone before 441 B.C. and, 2500 years later, that choice is still the dramatic engine of a vast genre of novels about ‘consulting detectives,’ private investigators or simply concerned citizens who find themselves compelled to act outside the law to prevent an injustice.

In Primary Obsessions, Vancouver playwright, comedian and political activist Charles Demers introduces Dr. Annick Boudreau, a spunky young psychiatrist who treats patients afflicted with various mental health disorders at the West Coast Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinic. (No, it’s not a Hot Yoga studio.) One of her young patients, Sanjay, a superficially gentle soul, engages in compulsive ritual hand-washing to banish obsessive thoughts of murdering his mother. He even moves out of the house to protect her from the fantasies that torment him.

Unfortunately, he shares an apartment with a bullying goon who works as a bouncer at a downtown peeler bar that doubles as a brothel. Wearing noise-cancelling headphones to tune out his odious room-mate, Sanjay is arrested while calmly washing his hands, oblivious to the fact that his tormentor has been butchered in the next room. The diary of his fantasies, kept as a therapeutic tool on Dr. Boudreau’s advice to help confront his obsession, is seized as evidence of his violent tendencies. As far as the cops are concerned, it’s a coffee-and-doughnuts case. A Facebook rant by the victim’s friend and fellow bouncer, in which racism and the atavistic fear of mental illness that still pervades our society are equally mixed, whips up a typical shit-storm of what passes for ‘public opinion’ in the WiFi Trailer Park the Global Village has become.

Constrained not only by law, but by professional ethics regarding the confidentiality of patient information, Annick Boudreau finds herself straddling a fence-rail, getting the painful wedgie mental health professionals often experience. What do you do when one of your patients is charged with a violent crime your professional training and instincts convince you he or she could not have committed?

Obviously, if you’re the spunky heroine of a mystery novel, you step up and investigate lines of inquiry ignored by the police in their eagerness to close the case. With her patient partner, Philip, a CBC Radio jock, (not exactly work experience qualifying him as side-kick to a soft-boiled private investigator), Annick plunges into the seamy menacing demi-monde of Vancouver. I don’t do spoilers with mysteries, so you’ll have to read the book to find out who did what and why. But, since Demers doesn’t pad out the plot, (unlike some writers apparently paid by weight) you’ll still catch a couple of hours of shut-eye after turning the last page.

One welcome twist Demers brings to the genre is the omission of a long-established stock character; slow-witted Inspector Plod, traditional bane of the private detective, as he was mocked in the clever 1972 film, Sleuth. In Primary Obsessions, the role of legal Devil’s advocate is played by Sanjay’s lawyer, who angrily reminds Annick that evidence acquired by extra-legal means most often rebounds against the defence and will taint her professional testimony if she is called to testify on Sanjay’s behalf. Police officers, who understandably detest novels about private detectives that portray them as vicious or comic bunglers, might actually enjoy Primary Obsessions.

Most will enjoy it for the real reason we read so many mysteries: not for the solution to the crime, which is ultimately incidental, but because since its appearance over a century ago, the detective novel has been the most potent form of social criticism of any literary genre since Sophocles and Euripides were staging skits in ancient Athens. Armed with a sense of justice, the investigator, whether cop or citizen, has the moral right to tear up the social contract and take us along for the voyeuristic bus ride through the most private parts of other people’s lives, delivering sharp social commentary along the route.

Much of the fun of reading Primary Obsessions comes from Demers’ sharp asides about the lifestyle of Vancouver’s often insufferably smug citizens. References to women “wearing yoga pants that operated on the human ass with the same flaw-obliterating effects as Photoshop and sports bras as supportive as a loving spouse” abound, along with observations like, “People in Vancouver never stopped saying that you could hike, ski and swim all in the same day—they always failed to mention, though, that nobody wanted to.” They also fail to mention that, like every city, Vancouver has a dark side its entitled residents don’t like to be reminded about. Only a few writers like Peter Trower, Joe Ferrone and Jim Christy have had the sand to walk those sinister streets and alleys.

As the first of a projected series of mystery novels featuring Dr. Annick Boudreau, Primary Obsessions is a cracking good start. Boudreau is a likeable protagonist and mental illness is a subject surprisingly under-addressed by current mystery writers, who appear interested in (obsessed by?) only statistically rare psychopathic serial killers.

The mental illnesses a society produces reveal its underside, its failings and deepest fears. By writing a novel that revolves around relatively common Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, rather than some rare violent psychopathology, Charles Demers brings freshness to a literary genre that has been in danger of turning as ripe as a week-old murder victim.


John Moore’s new collection of essays about West Coast life is Raincity from Anvil Press.



Primary Obsessions (D&M 2020) $18.95 978-1-77162-256-1

City On Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots, and Strikes (Greystone Books, 2017)

The Prescription Errors (Insomniac Press 2009)

Vancouver Special (Arsenal, 2009)

The Horrors: An A-to-Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things. (Douglas & McIntyre 2015) $24.95 978-1-77162-031-4

The Dad Dialogues: A Correspondence on Fatherhood (and the Universe) (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) with George Bowering $17.95 / 9781551526621

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Vancouver Special

[BCBW 2017]