Review of Adam's Witness by Shelley Leedahl for SaskBooks
Review of Broken Through
By Shelley A. Leedahl
Broken Through is former Saskatoon journalist J.C. Paulson’s follow-up to her first genre-blending novel, Adam’s Witness, and the author’s only getting better. In the new book, heroine Grace Rampling – a Saskatoon StarPhoenix reporter – digs into another gritty story after a friend’s neighbour’s dog is shot on the same day there’s been a fatal hit-and-run in Saskatoon. Then: the neighbor, a young dental hygienist who recently kicked a drinking problem, is found brutally murdered in her home. And – spoiler alert – she was pregnant. The father? The philandering dentist she worked for.
That’s hardly all: Rampling’s romantic partner, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis (from the earlier book), is investigating the murder, and the handsome and capable cop quickly connects this crime with others committed against petite, long-haired brunettes in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Can you say serial killer?
The novel definitely earns the moniker of a mystery, but one could also call it a romance. New lovers Rampling and Davis are extremely passionate about one another, but both are also being careful. Davis suffers from PTSD, which manifests in violent nightmares. “I feel like a piece of glass, sometimes; the tiniest chip makes me shatter,” he tells Rampling. With their complementary careers, the lines between personal and professional sometimes get blurred for this love-struck couple.
This isn’t literary fiction, so you won’t find overly poetic passages that would slow the racing plot, except, on occasion, when the lovers are regarding one another. Here’s Adam, upon seeing Grace after he’s been in California for a conference: “His body was paralyzed, but his eyes couldn’t look at her hard enough. With her tumbled, wild dark-auburn hair, her magnolia skin, and in her flowing dress, she reminded him of a crazy, beautiful, windblown wildflower.” You will find taut and believable dialogue, cliffhangers that’ll have you flipping pages as fast as you can, and a story that has more bends than the South Saskatchewan River.
Davis and Police Chief McIvor are culturally-sensitive characters, and as three of the five victims are Métis or First Nations women, deep into the novel Davis consults Elder Eileen Bear at the women’s low-security prison for “a clearer understanding of what women, particularly Indigenous women, are facing, in terms of violence, domestically and otherwise.” There’s a reference to BC’s “Highway of Tears,” and Bear says the prairie assaults are “our River of Tears”. Later, during a police press conference, Davis explains that the Saskatoon police force is “going to find and train and hire more Indigenous police officers as detectives, who will bring cultural understanding to our investigations.” They will also “meet with Elders, particularly women Elders, on a regular basis.”
In her notes, Paulson writes that whether one reads this “as a murder mystery, a love story, a morality tale or a fury, [she supposes] it was intended to be all of those.” Mission accomplished.
In the final two chapters of this satisfying story, Paulson opens the door for further adventures for her crime-fighting duo. I’ll be waiting.
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Adam’s Witness is longtime Saskatoon StarPhoenix journalist Joanne Paulson’s first foray into fiction, and the part mystery, part romance novel set in Saskatoon is sure to gain her many fans.
The fast-paced story begins with diligent StarPhoenix reporter Grace Rampling receiving a phone call from Pride Chorus member Bruce, who’s upset that his choir’s next-day concert at St. Eligius Catholic Church was suddenly and inexplicably cancelled. Rampling crosses the alley to the nearby cathedral to learn why, and in the dark sanctuary she stumbles upon “a man in clerical clothing right at her feet” who is “bleeding copiously from the head”. The bishop’s been murdered, and all hell breaks loose. Could the perpetrator be a bitter choir member? A parishioner? Someone within the church? We learn that “the monstrance is missing,” and this large sacred vessel (it contains the Host) could, ironically, be the murder weapon.
What makes this book work so well is Paulson’s smart handling of diverse, well-drawn characters, and a two-pronged plot: not only is mid-twenties Grace the key witness (she’ll also come under vicious attack), the ambitious reporter also quickly falls for the crime’s lead investigator, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis, and he’s awfully sweet on her, as well; he replays her taped testimony just to hear her voice.
The pacing is taut. Setting, too, is well-handled. If you know Saskatoon – especially Saskatoon in winter – it’s easy to envision the Spadina Avenue cathedral as Paulson’s drawn it: “Mist swirling up from the half-frozen river cloaked the beautiful brick cathedral with gothic mystery”. Much of the action’s set downtown. Rampling meets Bruce at Divas, Saskatoon’s long-running gay nightclub, and questions him about the choir members. “They’e angry. It’s so offensive. The chorus is a professional group – I mean, most of us are professionals. We don’t show up for concerts dressed in drag, for Christ’s sake.”
I appreciated the insight into how a news story is filled while reporters wait for more hard facts, and the numerous small details that add realism, ie: when Adam and Grace coincidentally meet at the Second Avenue Starbucks, they discuss “the relative merits of Starbucks over Tim Hortons”. The exchanges between Grace and her feisty sister, Hope, are credible and also often humourous, ie: after Grace confesses that she kissed Adam, Hope says she would have, too. “‘You would not,'” Grace says, and Hope responds: “‘No, I wouldn’t. I’m just trying to calm you down'”.
There is, in fact, a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek lightness to this murder mystery, right down to the omniscient narrator’s tone. Chapter Twelve, for example, begins thus: “The forensic pathologist was measuring something on the smashed-in skull of the Bishop of Saskatoon when Adam Davis walked into the reeking but antiseptic room”.
In the book’s end notes Paulson explains that the story was inspired by an actual case. “In 2004, Saskatoon’s Anglican cathedral cancelled a performance by the local gay choir”. (The church later about-faced.) Some fact, much fiction. Adam’s Witness will keep you reading.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM