Saturday, December 17, 2011

Canada Calling: Stephen Legault

Stephen Legault is a Canadian social activist, consultant, professional photographer, and writer. He is the author of numerous non-fiction works and three (so far) mystery series, featuring protagonists in the Utah desert, an environmentalist/ investigator, and a disabled Mountie in the 1880s.

PDD: What links Durrant Wallace, Cole Blackwater and Silas Pearson as characters?

Stephen
Almost nothing, except all are men and, to some degree, misanthropes.

Silas has spent years crawling around the Utah desert in the hopes of finding his missing wife’s body. That’s not something he cares to share with a lot of other people. In a mystery series hunting for a body can only go on so long; eventually he has to find something. That’s why I’ve only plotted the first three Red Rock Canyon Mysteries. If an angry mob with pitch forks demands more, then I have plenty of other material to extend Silas’ journey.

Cole is a grumpy, anti-social drinker, but underneath is soft-hearted. His issues with anger and his family, and the questions that engage him, whether they be stopping a mining project in Alberta; threats to British Columbia wild salmon because of massive farming operations; or the plight of the homeless in downtown Vancouver are far reaching. I see his story arc as potentially open-ended. Sometimes too much potential can create more problems for a writer. I don’t want Cole to repeat himself, so in the third book, The Vanishing Track, some of Cole’s problems from the previous books are resolved, but he’s left with a whole new set of problems to deal with. The Vanishing Track will be published in the spring of 2012.

Durrant is also a misanthrope and anti-social, but for very different reasons than Cole. He was a young man when Confederation happened in 1867. He was part of the Northwest Mounted Police March West in the summer of 1874. Three years before The End of the Line, when the first book in the series starts, he was, in the slang of the times zinged, zipped, but not zeroed. Being shot in the line of duty, and severely disabled as a result, but not killed. It left him an outcast. I think Durrant would have rather been dead. He has a meaningless job, sorting the mail and taking the census in the newly minted Fort Calgary, but he wants more. And the society of the time has a hard time seeing that he has more to give.

The Durrant Wallace series has the incredible advantage of being set during the literal creation of Canada. In the fifty years between Confederation and World War I, Western Canada saw the Northwest Mounted Police sent to the west; the coming of the railroad; waves of immigration, each one different from the last; incorporation of cities all across the prairies; the formation of provinces and territories out of what was the North West Territories; the Second Riel Rebellion; the establishment of Banff National Park, the first national park in Canada; periodic man-made and natural disasters, including a terrible fire in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1886; the Yukon gold rush; and racial unrest. Canadian troops were sent to the Boer War. Bill Miner staged the first Canadian train robbery. The first Calgary Stampede was held and oil was discovered in Alberta.

For a historical mystery writer, that’s like a huge box of candy. It all looks so delicious, it’s hard to know where to start, and so I chose to start in 1884 when the railway was being built in Alberta.

PDD: In researching Durrant’s series, what did you learn about railroad building across the Canadian prairies in the 1880s?

Stephen
Three words: individual bloody toil. While there were a few steam-powered machines, and there certainly were explosives, the majority of the railroad was built by men using their muscles.

Many people assume that Chinese laborers built the Canadian railroad. That was true on the Western side of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia on what was called the Onderdonk section, named for the man in charge Andrew Onderdonk. But on the Eastern side the laborers were mainly Americans and Europeans.

These men lived in box cars or in tent shanties, with planks for beds and a leaky wood stoves for heat. They did hard physical labor in all kinds of weather and rarely had a day off. Because explosives contracts were written so that the contractor was paid by the volume of material blasted, companies looked for the longest routes possible in order to make the most money, putting the workers lives on the line.

The workers’ only recreation was what they provided themselves: gambling and drinking. The Canadian Pacific Railway prohibited making or selling whiskey within 10 miles of CPR property, so the whiskey trade moved to 10 miles and 1 foot outside the temperance zone. There was a lot of illegal whiskey made in the CPR camps, and often men walked 10 miles through dangerous mountains to have a drink. Some never returned.

Many Canadians have this idea that settling the country north of the 49th parallel was a lot more civilized than in the American wild west. It was and it wasn’t. There were ten or twelve thousand men living in shanty towns along the CPR right-of-way. Those towns were often lawless; there were only a handful of Mounties patrolling a vast area. In my research I found first hand accounts of murders happening with no investigations, and very little fuss.

I lived in one of those towns, Lake Louise, in the early 1990’s when I worked for Parks Canada. In the winter of 1884, when The End of the Line is set, there were five hundred men left behind after the construction season, in what was then called Holt City. Four months at temperatures below minus thirty, with thirty feet of snow on the ground: it was a recipe for murder if there ever was one.

PDD: You bring in Sam Steele as something of a mentor to Durrant. What are the challenges of including a real historical figure in a work of fiction?

Stephen
To quote Mark Twain, “First know your facts, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” With Sam Steele, the facts jump out at you: the March West, Sitting Bull, the North-West Rebellion, Fort Steele, the Yukon gold rush, the Boer War, and World War I. Sam was there for all of them. Now that we know these facts, I plan to have a great time distorting them for Durrant’s benefit.

Durrant’s story is about redemption. What he desperately wants, and what I plan to give him, is a second chance at life. But not without a great deal of physical and emotional turmoil first. In order to have that second chance he needs a powerful mentor. Sam Steele embodied the quintessential Western Canadian attitude of ‘try diplomacy before you resort to force’, and that’s the kind of mentor Durrant will need if he’s going to reclaim his life.

Stephen’s books are published by TouchWood Editions.
Please visit Stephen online at or follow him on Twitter at @stephenlegault.

Win a copy of the End of the Line. Leave a comment below to have a chance to win! A name will be drawn at random on Monday morning.

4 comments:

Valberta said...

Stephen, your Durrant Wallace series promises to bring to life a lot of western Canadian history that we never learned in school. And along with the intriguing character development, a "huge box of [reading] candy" indeed! Your Red Rock Canyon Mysteries are also on my list, as I've enjoyed traveling and hiking in that area. Congrats on these works, and Merry Christmas!

Stephen Legault said...

Many thanks Valbert; I appreciate your feedback. I hope you have picked up a copy of The End of the Line. Follow me on twitter @stephenlegault or visit www.stephenlegault.com to get updates when the Vanishing Track and the Slickrock Paradox are released.

Valberta said...

Hey Stephen -- I'm looking forward to reading The End of the Line; was thinking perhaps I'd won the copy advertised on this blog post. Am already following you on Twitter so you can DM me the delivery details! Cheers, Val

Sharon Wildwind said...

Yes, Valberta, you have won the copy of End of the Line. Get in touch with either me or Stephen, and we'll get a copy to you.