Mark Zuehelke is an award-winning Canadian author who writes both popular military history and mysteries. Hands Like Clouds, his debut mystery novel, won the Crime Writers’ of Canada Best First Novel award in 2000, and the third book in the series, Sweep Lotus, was nominated for the 2004 Best Novel.
Do you have a military background?
No, but since I was a youngster I’ve had a great interest in military history and have been a voracious reader of books about war. I was a fairly indifferent student with regard to most subjects other than English and the History sections of Social Studies as it was called then in British Columbia. History, even when badly taught—which it generally was—intrigued me because it really comes down to being the stories of people and how they lived in a specific culture and time and how that place in time and that culture shaped their ideas and beliefs.
How did you choose what conflicts to write about?
In some ways the conflicts ended up choosing me. The first military history book I decided to write was Ortona, which chronicles the experiences of the Canadians in Italy and their battle for control of this Adriatic town. I had attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in my then hometown of Kelowna and, as we do in small Canadian towns, much of the crowd adjourned to the local legion where we drank some beer and ate bad stew. I ended up sitting next to three men who began talking about their time in the battle for Ortona and what a hellish engagement it was.
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Thinking I knew quite a bit about Canada's military history I was shocked to realize I knew little about this battle. When I sought to find a book on it, there was none to be found. This isn't right, I thought. Somebody needs to write about this. And why not me? It took some years to find a publisher, but eventually I did.
Working on that book, I realized the entire Canadian experience in the Italian Campaign had been woefully neglected and so decided to set that straight with the trilogy of books that now encompasses the campaign on mainland Italy. This season I've gone back and published a prequel to that series, Operation Husky, which looks at the Canadian role in the Sicily campaign. This is the 7th book on the Canadian army and World War II and we've rebranded the series as the Canadian Battle Series. Logically I will now follow the army through its remaining major battles and campaigns so the series provides a complete record.
Brave Battalion: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) in the First World War, out this fall from John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. also was initially proposed by an editor at that publisher. With the 90th Anniversary coming he thought a book that used one battalion as a lens through which to look at the experiences of Canadian soldiers through the course of the war would be good. I was utterly intrigued by the idea and so off we went. The editor gave me free rein to decide which battalion to write about.
My first thought was that it had to be a Highland Battalion because that would let me weave in all the Highland military traditions of the bagpipes and kilts and such. The Canadian Scottish ended up being perpetuated as a militia regiment here in Victoria after the war and all their archival records are stored up at the university, so that made the research a lot simpler. And the Can Scots were present for every major battle, four of their number won Victoria Crosses, and they saw some of the bitterest fighting of all Canadian units (and suffered one of the highest casualty rates).
How did you make a transition from writing history to writing your first mystery?
When I decided to make a living as a writer my intention was to do so by writing novels and those first novels—none of which published by the way—were grounded in the history of particular conflicts. In one case the novel took place in the Lebanese Civil War of the early 1970s with flashbacks by the main character to her experiences in Vietnam. The other followed a Canadian member of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and a Spanish anarchist through the course of the Spanish Civil War.
There was an element of a mystery in this last one and I was increasingly intrigued by the workings of the mystery genre, so when I turned to what I imagined would be my next novel to not publish I decided it would be a mystery. This was partly because in the meantime I had written my first actual historical book, which was about the British Remittance Men who came to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Upon finishing this book, I realized I wasn't really ready to be done with these—to me anyway—fascinating characters.
What is a Remittance Man?
A left-over son. In England, the oldest son inherited the land and the title. Other sons traditionally went to the church and the military. In a big family there were often surplus sons, who had no prospects or, occasionally, a son hadn’t turned out quite as well as the family expected him to. These left-overs always went to the far end of civilization in search of adventure, supported by a generous remittance from a source of family wealth back in Britain.
How did you turn a Remittance Man into an amateur sleuth?
I started playing with the idea of what would it be like if you had a modern day Remittance Man. Where would he live? The far end of civilization. The end of the road in Canada is Tofino, British Columbia, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Rugged countryside, small town filled with eccentrics, and an openness to people living however they wish. So I had the perfect setting in place. What would my Remittance Man do? Well, nothing actually because he had that money from his family.
In my days as a newspaper reporter I had covered many a coroner's inquest and knew that in a quirk of British Columbian law that most small communities have their own community coroner. And this coroner is only required under the Coroner's Act to be “a member in good standing in the community.” Well, my character Elias McCann only barely qualified as being of “good standing,” but it was the perfect role for him to play in the community of Tofino.
Rather reluctantly he would agree to serve as the coroner, and this opened the door for him to be involved in various investigations of sudden deaths. I have always had a bit of difficulty with the amateur sleuth mysteries that operate as a series because it becomes increasingly implausible that the character could have this many dead people falling down around him. But if you are an amateur coroner, as Elias is, it's entirely plausible because death is your business.
Have you found any similarities in writing history and writing mysteries?
There are more similarities in the way I write non-fiction and fiction than might first be expected. The major difference is that in the novels I can resort to invention whereas in the non-fiction I have to stick to the facts. But with both forms what I aim to do is create images in the reader's mind so they are no longer aware of just reading words on a page. That's a natural in fiction, or at least it should be (some so called literary novels come to mind as contradictions to this thesis).
In a lot of non-fiction, however, this doesn't happen because there is no use of narrative techniques, such as characterization, dialogue, scene setting, and dramatization of action sequences. When I'm writing about a particular moment of combat, for example, I have to research it deeply enough so that I can place that moment inside a scene. So I need to know whether it was raining or sunny that day. What was the terrain like? What plants grow there? I also need a soldier, or several soldiers—depending on the numbers involved-—through whose eyes I can depict the action. That's why I gather in so many veteran accounts of the battles I write about. They are my cast of characters and I shift between them as needed to relate the story.
I am always stuck in a Cecil B. De Mille moment with a large cast in my non-fiction because it takes dozens, even hundreds, of soldier viewpoints to cover all the territory of a large battle or campaign. In my novels, the only viewpoint is that of Elias, so it's a lot simpler in terms of managing the cast. But then, of course, there's the problem that the reader can only see, hear, and know what Elias is witness to or thinks about. So each form has its unique challenges.
You may have positioned yourself in a hard-to-win situation: more women read amateur detectives; more men read military fiction. Do you think that having a military topic turns some readers off?
I think I have two distinctly different audiences, although there is some overlap. The military non-fiction draws one readership, which actually includes an increasing number of women. This, I think, because many women are trying to find out more about their families and if you had a grandfather or father in either war the best way to learn about their experiences is to read my books because they offer that over-the-shoulder viewpoint. So that works for me. With the mysteries, although Elias did serve in the army—and is haunted by some of his experiences as a peacekeeper in Cyprus—there is little in the way of a military thread in the books. Mostly his past service as a soldier just gives him an ability to handle firearms well and think in tactical ways that sometimes helps solve the mystery. His lover, Vhanna Chan, has a link to war as well for she is a survivor of the genocide inflicted on Cambodia by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
We’ve just come through the Remembrance Day that marks the 90th Anniversary of the end of World War I. Any thoughts on that special day?
I believe Remembrance Day is an essential annual event for Canadians because we should remember the many thousands who have given their lives for this country in wars past and present. I wish more Canadians would make the effort to gather at the cenotaph in their community and participate in the ceremony, particularly those with children so that those children can gain some understanding of the sacrifice of past generations of Canadians and of the ongoing sacrifice being made by the young soldiers we have asked to go overseas and risk their lives yet again.
For more information about Mark and his books, visit his web site http://www.zuehlke.ca