Principles to Live By by David Adams Richards (Doubleday Canada, 336 pages, hardcover, $36). Photo/courtesy of Doubleday Canada

Modern-day hero cop, Catholic to boot

By  Philippa Sheppard, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2016

Move over Hercule Poirot and Adam Dalglish. John Delano has supplanted both as the most endearing sleuth of modern fiction.

This cop is characterized by moral probity and an impregnable determination to complete the job. Delano is acknowledged as brilliant, even by his enemies. He has an unerring ability to sift through pretenses and reach the truth — a trait that makes him hated by the many pretenders around him. Lonely are the brave.

Giller Award-winner David Adams Richards weaves together complex plot threads with aplomb reminiscent of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. His gripping novel is set chiefly in New Brunswick, with flashbacks to Rwanda during the period of the genocide, and to New York in Canadian diplomatic circles around the same time.

The story focuses on the cases of two missing boys, lost 10 years ago. One of them is Delano’s own adopted son. The other, a strange boy from a local foster home, nicknamed “The Limey.” With so few clues that his colleagues in the police department urge him to give up on both cases, Delano searches indefatigably. Meanwhile, his enemies, both in the provincial government and the force, cast doubt on his sanity and place obstacles along his path to the truth.

His chief adversary is Melissa Sapp, provincial co-ordinator for child protection services, whose sibilant name suggests her snaky insinuation into the most powerful governmental circles. Harbouring a deep resentment for Delano, who cast a critical eye on her shady intrigues, Melissa attempts to stymie the detective’s career.

In contrast is the luckless Melon Thibeaudot, a product of the same foster home which harboured “The Limey” before he went missing. Melon is a young man with a lively conscience who nevertheless always seems to land on the wrong side of the law.

He is only one of a cast of characters who dwell in the sleazy underworld of Saint John. Delano’s ex-wife, Jeannie, gets sucked into this world in a desperate search for her lost son. She is forced to deal with petty criminal Bennie Cheval and his more clever, and more sinister, sister Velma. These two also enmesh the guileless Luda Marsh, another orphan raised by the foster system.

Delano throughout displays a remarkable understanding of human nature, instinctively distinguishing those who do good from those who merely present a good image. He also tends to believe what children say, no matter how far-fetched, while those around him dismiss children as unreliable. As he admits to his counsellor Sue Van Loon, who is helping him deal with grief over his lost son, he believes that evil is real and it is his job to fight it. She finds it difficult to reconcile Delano’s high intelligence with his loyal adherence to Catholicism, but this doesn’t stop him from being “more than a little in love with her.”

Despite his admiration for and trust in Sue Van Loon and Constable Trevor, the female police officer he works with, Delano has a reputation as a chauvinist. This was partly brought about by his hasty marriage with the gullible Jeannie in order to rescue her son from the foster home where he was placed by the authorities when the single mother refused to abort him. The little boy, Gilbert, is not Delano’s biological son, but that doesn’t stop him championing the boy throughout his childhood.

Richards achieves an undercurrent of truly humourous satire on the contradictions and hypocrisies to which extreme political correctness can lead. Richards can be counted with other Canadian ironists such as Mordecai Richler and Russell Smith. Satire is sadly rare in contemporary North American fiction, and therefore more prized when it emerges.

Richards moves with skill between periods and settings. My only quibble is that he shifts away from Delano’s point of view to those of other characters at the conclusion. In doing so, he loses some of the emotional connection he had built up by his focus on the melancholy detective. We want to relish a victory with the hero. However, this hardly diminishes the intense pleasure of reading Richards’ heartfelt, evocative prose pierced through with many passages of incisive irony.

Principles to Live By by David Adams Richards (Doubleday Canada, 336 pages, hardcover, $36).

(Sheppard teaches with the Department of English at the University of Toronto.)

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