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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review of PRINCIPLES TO LIVE BY by David Adams Richards

3.5 Stars
The protagonist, John Delano, is an RCMP officer nearing retirement in Saint John, New Brunswick.  He receives a letter which suggests that a 13-year-old boy went missing from a foster home twelve years earlier.  Delano feels he must investigate but there seems no record of such a boy since he was never reported missing and even his name is unknown.  His very existence is questionable, though the novel’s opening flashback shows that he did indeed exist and explains what happened.  Delano is thwarted every way he turns, a colleague even suggesting Delano is planting evidence.  Regardless he persists.

Delano is a broken man.  His health is failing, his career has stalled, his marriage has failed, and he is tormented by the unsolved disappearance of his stepson and by the horrors he witnessed during the Rwandan genocide.  Delano arouses sympathy in the reader.  He has suffered a great deal.   He feels responsible for his stepson’s disappearance since he wasn’t at home because of work; the boy’s last words to Delano were, “’Dad, you forgot to say goodbye’” (178).  When his psychiatrist asks if he has ever considered suicide, Delano replies, “’Oh – not so often.  Four, maybe five times a day’” (171).  When asked if he has friends, he says, “’Not that you’d notice’” (201).  His professional reputation has suffered; his actions and comments have been incorrectly interpreted to label him a racist and sexist. 

He also arouses admiration.  Delano is a brilliant man with uncompromising ethics.  He has a personal code of honour.  Believing that evil exists in the world (69), Delano feels that he must root out evil wherever he suspects it lies.  If his pursuit of evil means that he must suffer, so be it:  “If Saint Catherine’s heart could be pierced by the cross of Christ, why shouldn’t his be” (178)?  Delano is very much David in a David versus Goliath struggle between good and evil.  He and his goodness are at odds with a society in which political correctness and appearances take precedence, in a world in which “common decency” (117) is exceptional.   His decisions and actions often complicate the struggle; his unwillingness to deviate from his principles means his enemies can portray him as an inflexible troublemaker. 

There is one major problem with how Delano works on the case.  At the beginning, he mentions that though he is no longer an active officer, he does get called in to work on cases:  “He was better than good at them.  Why this was he wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone.  He had in fact been around the globe doing work.  He had been an officer for many years” (11).  His reputation proves to be deserved, but his powers of observation seem almost superhuman.  Everywhere he searches he finds objects that are clues to a decades-old disappearance.  Every object he finds turns out to be relevant to the case.  From the flimsiest of clues, he builds a narrative that always proves to be correct.  Some of his leaps of logic are astounding.  Often he seems to rely only on supposition.  It is understandable, therefore, why he is often regarded with suspicion; evidence does appear by chance and he always makes astute analyses and uncanny predictions.  At the end, one colleague is astounded and asks, “’I know he is good, but is he that good?’” while another replies, “’Except . . . he is that good.  He always has been that good’” (255).

In terms of characterization, another issue is the portrayal of the villains.  Melissa Sapp, for example, seems to be the embodiment of evil.  A career politician, she seeks revenge against Delano because he openly opposed her decisions many years earlier.  She portrays herself as an altruist but she is a hypocrite because she does only things that will aid her ambition and bring her more power.  She is beautiful and intelligent and uses those traits to be unscrupulously manipulative.  The author takes pains to state that Sapp “did have one entirely admirable trait. . . Although not in her marriage, she did have loyalty in most other things that concerned [her husband]” (266).  The author, however, “doth protest too much, methinks.”  Velma Cheval is another villain who, likewise, seems to have no redeeming qualities. 

The tone of the novel is sometimes troubling; the author’s anger almost overpowers the narrative.  He lashes out at academics, social workers, feminists, political bureaucrats, and even writers.  For example, Canada’s special envoy to the UN is described:  “This special envoy had the pallid, studied look of a world-weary intellectual and a practised, face-saving inscrutability when he spoke of delicate matters – matters when to actually be concise and forthright was critical.  That is, like so many diplomats, the more vital the need the more tenuous the response” (75 – 76).  Then there are comments like, “[John] had seen as many self-serving and wounded feminists as chauvinists.  A few of them had murdered.  But more of them had done something even worse, in John Delano’s mind unforgivable: Like some of the writers he had got to know from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan, they had pandered” (60).  Professors do not fare well:  “the security professors had, the safety they enjoyed, the coddling they experienced, . . . and the monies they received seemed disproportional to anything they had achieved.  If there was an ideal idle class, a class that pretended to have great experience, even great suffering, without experiencing the pain, professors certainly came close” (160).

Another weakness in the book is the interconnectedness of characters.   Saint John is not a huge metropolis, but it is not a small town either.  It is unlikely that everyone will have a direct connection to Delano.  When the relationship between Delano and a petty criminal is revealed at the end of the novel, it explains a lot, but then everyone seems related to everyone else.  “By some trick of fate” (77), a political mandarin is the father of a man Delano once arrested.  That son influenced the decisions of the parents of the missing boy and is a friend of Melissa Sapp.  So many tricks of fate seem excessive. Certainly, Melissa Sapp’s involvement in so many aspects of Delano’s life over so many years stretches credulity.

My review of this book seems negative, and I feel there are definite problems.  Nonetheless, I would recommend it.  David Adams Richards has been a favourite novelist of mine for many years; in my blog, I’ve mentioned that his  Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is a book that should be read by all Canadians.  Though this book is not his strongest, I still found it enjoyable.  A damaged detective solving a case suggests a police procedural, but this is anything but a conventional mystery.  It seems that David Adams Richards always surprises and offers something out of the ordinary.