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Whereas you or I, in recent years, might have discerned a foul smell in the LRT’s Parliament Station and thought, “Whew, that’s unpleasant,” Peggy Blair sniffed out the inspiration for her latest book.
“My mystery author’s brain said, ‘Dead body,’” says the Ottawa-based writer. “It’s not a broken sewage line. It’s a dead body.”
It’s no spoiler to say that Shadow Play, which is Blair’s fifth mystery, begins with an unnamed figure ruminating about a hidden corpse generating rusty stains that seep through the station’s tunnels. Ultimately, this physical rot ties into an extensive scheme of corruption that plagues the transit system that Ottawa residents love to hate and, indeed, the city’s government.
No wonder the cover of Blair’s page-turner shows an LRT train.
“The only thing wrong with the cover is that the train is running,” Blair says.
Shadow Play, which Blair will launch Sept. 26 at the Barrhaven Legion, is her most Ottawa-centric work. A lawyer for more than 30 years before she turned to writing, Blair penned four much-admired Inspector Ramirez books between 2010 and 2016 and they were set, principally, in Havana. Her new book vividly takes readers to the ByWard Market, Westboro and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, just for starters, while Rideau Regional Police Force Det. Jamie Wallace works to solve a particularly intriguing murder.
Shadow Play is also as current as it is unflinchingly accurate. Not only does Blair take note of Ottawa’s drabness and OC Transpo’s lack of punctuality; she situates her book in what might as well be the present day — post-convoy protest and during “an eighth wave of COVID.”
She says readers who have contacted her or reviewed Shadow Play online appreciate that the book is set in Ottawa. “The one thing they’re all commenting on is they really like the fact that it’s Canada, the fact that it’s Ottawa, that it has local details,” says Blair.
Their feedback is a vindication of sorts, given that, as Blair says, Canadian mystery writers seeking to have their books picked up by big publishers are typically pushed to set their work in the United States.
“I think that’s a real shame,” Blair says. “If a Canadian can’t write about Canada, who can?”
Writer Louise Penny, whose Inspector Gamache books are set in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, is the exception that proves the rule, says Blair. “She’s established that you can set a book in a Canadian province and it will be snapped up. Yet you still have publishers who are not taking that chance,” she says.
While Blair’s previous books were published by either Penguin or Simon & Shuster, Shadow Play is self-published.
Although Blair’s previous books were well-reviewed and one of them even cracked a national best-seller list, Blair took a long hiatus from writing, which didn’t help when she tried to make a comeback.
“I kind of stepped aside. I’d moved into real estate,” says Blair, who is a realtor. “I’d hoped to be able to make a living by writing, and that wasn’t going to happen. I was tired. I ran out of ideas…. I kind of put it aside.”
But late last year, ideas for Shadow Play started coming to her. “I finally had some time,” Blair says. “You can kind of tell when it’s going to work. It comes together very quickly.”
She says she writes by the seat of her pants rather than by meticulously plotting a book with an outline. “Often I don’t know where a story’s going until I start writing it. I don’t know who’s going to turn out to be the major character,” she says. “It really all comes out as I’m going through it myself and sometimes it takes me in directions I don’t expect to go.”
For Shadow Play, Blair brought back two appealing characters from her previous books — Indigenous police officer Charlie Pike and Russian hitman-spy Slava Kadun, who, according to his creator’s description, is a dead ringer for a younger Bruce Willis. They are part of the proceedings as Wallace, a difficult and impulsive heroine, tries to figure out who killed Ottawa realtor Susan Winchester.
Blair must have had her tongue in her cheek when she wrote this exchange in Shadow Play: “Who would want to kill a realtor?” (Wallace) asked. “Pretty much everyone, from what I hear,” (Piked answered).
Then again, maybe Wallace is Blair’s alter ego, as both the detective and the writer are boxing buffs who work out at a boxing club on King Edward Avenue.
“There’s a bit of me in all of them,” Blair concedes of her characters. “But none of them are me. Unless I’m difficult, impulsive, kind, generous… They all have different aspects.”
By this spring, Blair had a manuscript to shop around. But no publisher or agent signed on to champion her book. Blair now sees self-publishing as a plus, as it’s allowed her to bring Shadow Play to market more quickly and not have to deal with bookstores, which would taken half of the list price as part of the deal.
“I think the existing model is broken,” Blair says. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to play that game anymore.’”
Even when Blair’s previous book charted as a bestseller, its sales were measured in the hundreds, not the thousands, says Blair. Already, sales of Shadow Play through the website reboundpress.com, which began a month ago, have matched the pace of that previous bestseller, and the new book is on its third press run.
“I think I’ll come out of this ahead. The question is how far ahead,” Blair says.
Shadow Play Launch
When: Sept. 26, 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Barrhaven Legion, Barrhaven Crossing Mall, 3500 Fallowfield Rd.
More info: reboundpress.com
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