Fraser Nixon’s debut novel, The Man Who Killed, is a sleek, tightly-executed neo noire which follows Mick, the disaffected antihero, on an odyssey through a prohibition-era Montreal of opium dens, rusty ports-of-call, and high-class corruption that freely consorts with the world of petty gamblers and morphine addicts.
Yet, underlying the familiar but well-adapted noire tropes that propel the reader forward, Nixon’s book tells an equally compelling story of a city, a country, and a people finding their identity. Behind this fast-paced subterranean world of would-be gangsters and bootleggers taking orders from faceless overlords in Chicago and New York, something like an allegory begins to take shape. We see the first-person narrative maneuver between the action conspiring in bordellos and midnight, cross-border shootouts, and watch as it blends with ruminations on Confederacy and Empire in the characteristically sharp and ironic turns of noire language.
Through the continual efforts of the hapless Mick and his mercurial friend-turned-boss Jack to redress one double-cross after another, we catch background glimpses of a country facing the Republic to the south and an Empire to the east, and struggling, as it continues to do today, for selfhood. “Ours was a second-hand country with second-hand sentiments for second-hand subjects”, Mick reflects. “[I]t was as though my countrymen were children wanting to dine with the grown-ups.”
Mick is a former med-school student at McGill who was obliged to bow out of the program before graduating when his liberal abuse of the hospital medicine cabinet came to light. Jack is a royal character, part Beau Brummell, part Clyde Barrow, with his inscrutable under-world affiliations stretching from the insular opium dens of Montreal’s Chinatown and the prohibition-era mob families of Chicago and New York, to Parliament Hill and then-Prime Minister Mackenzie King. A dangerous person to call an enemy, and perhaps more precarious to claim as a friend, Jack shows up at the most opportune moments with a stack of cash, a revolver, and a plan.
Aside from the plot, language is the best thing this novel has going for it. The descriptions are acute and on point, at their best hitting the reader with the suddenness of a pistol report behind the ear. Smoke curls from the barrels of guns, narcotics invade the streams of the body’s circulatory system, hard liquor seeps through the promenades of a city under prohibition. Montreal is alive and blistering in Nixon’s portrait.
Yet, for all its virtues, the language also tends to falter periodically, as though uncertain of how felicitous it needs to be to the historical period it wants to represent. Such antiquated turns of phrase, even for 1926, as “betimes” and “selfsame” come off as contrived attempts to marry the language to the novel’s time period. Descriptions like the “spanking brasswork” of a ship leave the reader uncertain as to whether Nixon is trying to mimic the idioms he thinks suited to the time, or if he’s attempting a lexical slant around which his central characters are developed, such as a novel like A Clockwork Orange does so well. The inconsistency with which this device occurs can stretch the reader’s credibility thin and at times lands the linguistic style of the book somewhere between verisimilitude and verbosity.
Similarly, certain idioms in the characters’ speech seem displaced and better suited to the style of 2011 than 1926. We get Jack observing to Mick early in the novel “You done look tore up lad”; Mick giving his assent with a “Good deal”; people “laying down jazz on the piano”; cigarettes being called “bullets”; and people reminiscing about things that happened “back in the day”. These occurrences – at best ill-advised, at worst anachronistic – jar with the prim mannerisms mentioned above and don’t seem to serve the overall narrative one way or the other. However, these instances are few and far between, and indeed the style picks up as the novel develops and the plot thickens. The city itself becomes involved, burgeoning into a living entity through which Mick and Jack progress from bad to better, from good to worse.
In the end, what we take away from the machinations of this pair of uncertain thugs in their effort to self actualize at the edge of an empire, is a portrait of our country just recovering from the end of the First World War, under an American style prohibition, and caught in the throes of two competing destinies.
The extent to which Mick and Jack succeed in manipulating the system of crime and corruption for their own ends in this outpost at the end of the continent is a litmus test of the success of the Dominion itself, “pulled between paladins of Empire and plutocrats of the Republic”, to forge its own identity. With each round of gunfire and intravenous shot of opiate, Mick and Jack negotiate this destiny as they play out a microcosmic history of Canada we’re seldom privy to and which, in many ways, is a story of the country’s becoming which is still being written today.