Book Review: The Carpenter From Montreal

Who knew that the original 4G network was a nexus of gamblers, girls, guns and gangsters, and that the Canadian hotspot was Montreal?  Until I began George Fetherling’s latest novel, The Carpenter From Montreal, I did not know that Montreal was a Babylon of the North during the 1920’s and 1930’s .

the Carpenter_

Fetherling spins his taut tale of two lads from immigrant families who Americanize their Lebanese names to Jim Joseph and Pete Sells. Through a combination of wits and good fortune, the two men become successful bootleggers and purveyors of games of chance in a “town” somewhere south of Canada. (My bet is on Brooklyn.) It’s Jim who encounters the French carpenter on one of his early bootlegging runs. A mentoring relationship of sorts begins. Unlike the expectations one would have of someone called “The Carpenter,” this character never touches tools traditionally associated with the craft. He’s more of a fixer—behind the scenes. From him, Jim learns about moving goods across borders and keeping the wheels of justice greased. And he acquires the carpenter’s habits of elegant attire, lavish surroundings and bodyguards.

The story-telling in The Carpenter From Montreal is unconventional but compelling. Three characters—a ghost, a newspaperman, and a lawyer—recount the rise and fall of Jim and Pete against a rich backdrop of characters, conversations, and street-life. There were times when I marveled at how Fetherling, who was born after this epoch, had captured in almost cinematographic detail the corruption and swagger of the time. I was fully immersed in the period.

The Carpenter From Montreal is an engaging and entertaining examination of a period and a lifestyle from an author who is a master craftsman. (See a recent article in The Globe and Mail for an update on Montreal’s red-light district).


This Marlowe — A Mystery by a Master Storyteller

There are authors and books that make a powerful first impression. When that feeling is sustained through subsequent encounters in person and with their writing, then I know I’m in the presence of someone with a gift. Michelle Butler Hallett is such an author.

This MarloweI met Michelle in the early 2000’s at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. We were both in Alistair MacLeod’s seminar group and we have each written about that honour. Michelle was a student whose commitment to form and language was articulate and impassioned, yet quietly and respectfully stated. I, who was secretly stumbling about on my keyboard, was in awe that anyone could find the words to speak about writing. Since that time, Michelle has produced five novels and several short stories. Writing is as natural for her as breathing.

Michelle’s most recent novel, This Marlowe, a work of historical fiction is set in the twilight of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s a tense spell-binding story of the last year of Christopher Marlowe’s life. Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, was also a graduate of Cambridge. The two facts, an unlikely combination for a poor boy, add fuel to the speculation that Marlowe may have been a spy for the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. Marlowe’s violent death at the age of twenty-nine adds to the mystery and the rumors of espionage.

This Marlowe immerses the reader in the political machinations of an unstable time against the backdrop of Elizabethan England with all its beauty and grit. There were times when I felt like I could see, hear, smell, and touch the surroundings and experiences of Marlowe and his lover Thomas Kyd. The writing is taut, yet eloquent. Michelle has captured her characters, their language, phrasing and cadences in a way that is just shy of magic. She writes vividly about pain and suffering whether it comes from pneumonia, arthritis or torture.That same skill of offering the reader a virtual experience is equally present when she writes about love and compassion.

This Marlowe is one of the few books in my library I will be re-reading, as much for the pleasure of doing so as for the challenge of deciphering how Michelle Butler Hallett created this masterpiece.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope, humor, and knowledge, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.