C’est de la Bombe
Black Rock: An Eddie Dougherty Mystery, by John McFetridge
ECW Press, 2014
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Montreal, 1970, and the world’s gone a bit bonkers. Bombings and kidnappings have taken the global stage, and nowhere is this truer than in Montreal. In the past couple of years, over two hundred bombs have been set in and around the city, mainly by the Front de Libération du Québec (or the FLQ), which is using violence to advocate Quebec’s sovereignty. Most of the bombs are timed to go off when no one is around, but you never know. Two prominent international figures are kidnapped, and the university students have begun to develop a strong distaste for the police.
And meanwhile, a serial killer, nicknamed “The Vampire Killer” by the press because of a certain preference for biting, has been raping and murdering young women.
Into this historically accurate maelstrom, John McFetridge thrusts his youthful protagonist, Constable Eddie Dougherty. The child of an Irish-Canadian father and a French mother, Dougherty exists uneasily between the two cultures, able to negotiate both but really at home in neither. Tolerated but not particularly respected by his Francophone superiors (who, unable to pronounce his name, typically call him “Dog-er-dee”), Dougherty often isn’t really sure himself why he’s drifted into the police force instead of heading to the mills or the docks as his peers have done, though he suspects sometimes that he likes the power it grants him a little too much.
When a fourth victim is discovered, she turns out to be from a neighborhood Dougherty grew up in, and his connections to the family and the area draw him into the investigation. But as the atmosphere of fear about bombings and kidnappings grows, the homicide detectives are drawn away by the need of the government to show strength in the face of terrorism, perhaps more a political move than an especially practical one. Too lowly in the ranks to do anything but obey those in charge, Dougherty is driven to spend his spare time looking into the murder. The French pronunciation of his name takes on an unintentional aptness, as there is more than a bit of sheer doggedness in Dougherty’s character.
In addition to the interest that the historical setting lends to the book, it is seeing this world through Dougherty’s perspective that is one of the novel’s great strengths. Too young to be completely jaded, Dougherty nevertheless has both class consciousness and a native skepticism to guard him against becoming too enamored of the institutions to which he’s subordinated. McFetridge himself grew up in this era and milieu and undoubtedly draws on his own memories and sensibilities to give us a nuanced view of this fractured time and place.
At a certain point in the story, Dougherty comes upon the monument that gives the novel its name. Black Rock, or the Commemorative Stone, is a monument to the six thousand Irish immigrants that died of typhus after contracting it on the voyage over to Canada. In Montreal, those who had become infected with the disease were quarantined in giant fever sheds and the ones who died were buried in a mass grave. Only twelve years later, workers building the Victoria Bridge accidentally discovered it. In this short period of time, these immigrants had been entirely forgotten, swept under the rug of history in an almost literal way. Black Rock is their memorial.
And Dougherty, taking the time to stop and read the inscription on the stone, tells himself that though the murdered girl is only one person and not six thousand, he isn’t going to let her just be forgotten either.
Dana King interviews John McFetridge about Black Rock at Spinetingler Magazine
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