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White Stone Day
by John MacLachlan Gray
Random House Canada
286 pages, $34.95

Vancouver’s John MacLachlan Gray returns to the sordid underbelly of Victorian London in White Stone Day, the sequel to his excellent 2003 thriller, A Fiend in Human. If you haven’t had the chance to read the earlier novel, fret not—while the two books feature the same protagonist, the tortured journalist Edmund Whitty, the stories stand alone completely. Fair warning, however: reading one book will inevitably lead you to seek out the other.

Gray made his name in the 1970s and ‘80s as a playwright and actor, primarily through Billy Bishop Goes to War, the world-famous musical revue which he wrote and performed with Eric Peterson. In the late 1990s, Gray decided to quit the theatre after a 25-year career that brought him to Broadway, London’s West End and Canada’s premier stages. Along the way, he earned a Governor-General’s Award, a Golden Globe and induction into the Order of Canada. In his “retirement,” he turned to novel writing. This marks his third novel in five years since that career change (a modern day thriller set in Vancouver called A Gift for the Little Master was published in 2000).

White Stone Day opens with Reverend William Boltbyn telling a story to two young girls, Emma and Lydia Lambert, both of whom are clearly enraptured with the tale. As the storytelling episode progresses, however, a rather chilling undercurrent of the possibly inappropriate infatuation Boltbyn has for 12-year-old Emma becomes clear. Indeed, he likes to photograph “his favourite subject in all sorts of guises, from beggar-girls to wood-nymphs.” And the chapter closes ominously: “The vicar looks upon Emma, photographing her in his mind, fixing in his memory the look in her hazel eyes, still filled with the mystery and wonder of childhood. […] Soon Emma’s eyes will acquire another kind of knowledge—and then the golden light of childhood will die, and he will be alone, an orphan and a widower, at once.”

Readers might recognize a resemblance between Boltbyn and Charles Dodgson, better known to the world by his pen-name, Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1862). Boltbyn, like Dodgson, is an avid photographer and gifted mathematician who seems to value friendships with little girls above all other human relationships. Many theories have been written about Lewis Carroll—some describe him as a pedophile obsessed with prepubescent girls, while others argue that he had relationships with grown women. Gray makes it clear in his acknowledgements that this is an “entirely fictional account” inspired by the “life and work” of Charles Dodgson. Part of the mystery of this book is exactly what role Boltbyn plays in a ring of child pornographers that Whitty seeks to uncover.

Like its predecessor before it, White Stone Day is a tightly woven thriller with compelling, vibrant characters that come to life against the vivid backdrop of 1850s London and Oxford. Gray has clearly researched his subject thoroughly, but he breathes life into that research—there are no boring page-long descriptions of what people are wearing or what types of cobblestones line the streets. That type of detail is here, but it comes through in active scenes; thanks to his theatrical training, Gray clearly understands the importance of driving the story forward through his characters’ actions and dialogue.

And oh, what dialogue! The words that come out of his characters’ mouths beg to be read aloud. Gray handles the Victorian vernacular adeptly, especially in the voice of Edmund Whitty, master of the barbed rejoinder and sardonic epigram. Special Correspondent for The Falcon, London’s second-best weekly tabloid, Whitty remains engaged in his quest for “crisp copy” and enough money to hold off his creditors and supply himself with the various drug concoctions and spiced gin he requires to get through the day. Though Whitty is a talented journalist, his addictions—from gambling to gin to “Acker’s Chlorodane (a useful tincture of opium, cocaine and marijuana in alcohol)”—have forced him to exist on the fine edge of poverty in an era when poverty could shave decades off one’s lifespan.

Whitty “is nothing if not paradoxical: a hypochondriac with a contempt for his own health; a confirmed rationalist who is an avid consumer of every medicament on the chemist’s shelf; an elitist who favours the poor; a moralist with a weakness for fallen women.” Deep down, he is also a reluctant hero who gets caught up in dangerous mysteries in spite of his better judgement. After one near scrape, for instance, “what Whitty has in mind is a speedy retreat, followed by a dose of medicinal snuff,” better known as cocaine, “followed by several jars of spiced gin, then a bath and a change of clothes. After that he intends to peruse the shipping news for imminent sailings to Canada.” Of course, in reality, he stays on the trail of his mystery and sticks his neck out even further.

White Stone Day is an entertaining and rewarding book on so many levels. Gray’s confident hand has penned a taut Victorian thriller, filled with witty turns-of-phrase, vivid characters, and exciting twists and turns.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who is currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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