Adam’s Witness is longtime Saskatoon StarPhoenix journalist Joanne Paulson’s first foray into fiction, and the part mystery, part romance novel set in Saskatoon is sure to gain her many fans.
The fast-paced story begins with diligent StarPhoenix reporter Grace Rampling receiving a phone call from Pride Chorus member Bruce, who’s upset that his choir’s next-day concert at St. Eligius Catholic Church was suddenly and inexplicably cancelled. Rampling crosses the alley to the nearby cathedral to learn why, and in the dark sanctuary she stumbles upon “a man in clerical clothing right at her feet” who is “bleeding copiously from the head”. The bishop’s been murdered, and all hell breaks loose. Could the perpetrator be a bitter choir member? A parishioner? Someone within the church? We learn that “the monstrance is missing,” and this large sacred vessel (it contains the Host) could, ironically, be the murder weapon.
What makes this book work so well is Paulson’s smart handling of diverse, well-drawn characters, and a two-pronged plot: not only is mid-twenties Grace the key witness (she’ll also come under vicious attack), the ambitious reporter also quickly falls for the crime’s lead investigator, Detective Sergeant Adam Davis, and he’s awfully sweet on her, as well; he replays her taped testimony just to hear her voice.
The pacing is taut. Setting, too, is well-handled. If you know Saskatoon – especially Saskatoon in winter – it’s easy to envision the Spadina Avenue cathedral as Paulson’s drawn it: “Mist swirling up from the half-frozen river cloaked the beautiful brick cathedral with gothic mystery”. Much of the action’s set downtown. Rampling meets Bruce at Divas, Saskatoon’s long-running gay nightclub, and questions him about the choir members. “They’e angry. It’s so offensive. The chorus is a professional group – I mean, most of us are professionals. We don’t show up for concerts dressed in drag, for Christ’s sake.”
I appreciated the insight into how a news story is filled while reporters wait for more hard facts, and the numerous small details that add realism, ie: when Adam and Grace coincidentally meet at the Second Avenue Starbucks, they discuss “the relative merits of Starbucks over Tim Hortons”. The exchanges between Grace and her feisty sister, Hope, are credible and also often humourous, ie: after Grace confesses that she kissed Adam, Hope says she would have, too. “‘You would not,'” Grace says, and Hope responds: “‘No, I wouldn’t. I’m just trying to calm you down'”. There is, in fact, a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek lightness to this murder mystery, right down to the omniscient narrator’s tone. Chapter Twelve, for example, begins thus: “The forensic pathologist was measuring something on the smashed-in skull of the Bishop of Saskatoon when Adam Davis walked into the reeking but antiseptic room”.
In the book’s end notes Paulson explains that the story was inspired by an actual case. “In 2004, Saskatoon’s Anglican cathedral cancelled a performance by the local gay choir”. (The church later about-faced.) Some fact, much fiction. Adam’s Witness will keep you reading.
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