Durrant Wallace is a tough man: strong, proud, slightly arrogant and a bit of an abrasive jerk.
But then again, he needs to be. A North West Mounted Police Sergeant in 1884, he’s dispatched by Sam Steele, his commanding officer, to Holt City, now Lake Louise, to investigate the murder of a man in a frozen, godforsaken work camp at the end of the CPR line. There, men have been toiling long and hard for months on end to push the railway through to the west coast.
Ahead of them lay mountains of rock they need to blast through to the sea. Behind them lie thousands of kilometres of already-laid track and bad-blooded relationships forged by heat, black flies and illicit moonshine.
It’s a surreal kind of world in Holt City, one of subzero temperatures, impenetrable forests, unstable explosives and primitive living conditions. It’s a camp of 400 uneducated men who know they’re largely disposable in the grander scheme of Sir John A. MacDonald’s drive to link the country by a ribbon of steel.
Into this world is sent Wallace, a one-legged redcoat whose life, almost lost in the whisky-trading wars of Cyprus Hills, is now one of paper-pushing and telegraph tapping, and whose acute awareness of his limited use to the NWMP is exacerbated by his prideful refusal to quit. Alone as a lawmaker within Holt City’s blurry grasp of civilization, his is a precarious position.
And so Stephen Legault sets the stage for a historical mystery that stands proud among the best of the genre. Best known recently for his fledgling series centred on environmental issues (The Darkening Archipelago, The Cardinal Divide), Legault has crafted in this new series a hero as flawed and human as his first, Cole Blackwater.
In the Blackwater series, though, Legault, an environmental consultant, activist and writer by profession, was immersed in the comfort zone of that which he knew best. In End of the Line, he enters the world of an amateur historian with extremely satisfying results.
His plot unfolds with painstaking care, peeling off layer after layer of deceit and misguided loyalties, keeping one turning pages well after one should have gone to bed.
His attention to detail is profound – the sight of pine sap quick-frozen on the freshly lumbered boards that make up the camp structures; the steam from the Chinese laundry pouring out the gaps in the hastily built walls, giving the illusion of an entire house smoking in the frigid air – bringing the reader right into Holt City with Durrant; bringing all of your senses to the fore as only a skillful writer can.
In mysteries, moreso it seems than most other genres, location plays a critical role in both plot and character and Legault’s intimate knowledge of these mountains and their history brings Durrant and Holt City alive.
For both mystery and history buffs, End of the Line is time well spent.
The End of the Line is published by Touchwood Editions