Book Review: The Poisoned Pawn (New Brunswick Telegraph Journal)

Now this is one of those reviews of The Poisoned Pawn that might have hurt my feelings . After all, no one wants to be accused of pontificating or being banal. But it’s actually a very thoughtful review which is not surprising given that reviewer Michael Higgins is  an academic with a background in theology, and  the vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn.

In those circumstances, given how critical The Poisoned Pawn is of Catholicism (and particularly the Vatican), I’m pretty chuffed. And as someone who graduated from Mount Allison, I’m impressed that the former president of St. Thomas University actually read my book!

What do you think of his description of The Poisoned Pawn as “experimental,” “risky” and “unconventional” but lacking  nuance? (I must say, his analysis of the book’s “poisonous” nature is one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen so far. It reminds me  how, many decades ago  as a student of Canlit at Mount A,  I would write an essay about a book and find more and more layers of symbolism the more I thought about it.)  

I can’t say I consciously planned any of the links and connections he sees, but trust an academic to make you think about your own book!


New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
Sat Mar 2 2013
Page: F6
Section: Arts

A Dead Draw

Ottawa lawyer Peggy Blair’s second inspector Ramirez novel divides its time between Ottawa and Havana, two cities for which the author betrays an intimate familiarity. These cities are virtual characters in the novel.

The plot is intricate, intriguing and surprising. Inspector Ricardo Ramierz is a young detective with a sharp mind, keen instinct and limited experience. And one of his closest associates, a man upon whom he relies for wisdom and sympathy, is Hector Apiro, a pathologist, plastic surgeon and a little person with enough intellectual verve, audacity and emotional strength to dwarf a platoon of political, legal and clerical functionaries.

Ramirez relies on Apiro to give him guidance and serve as a hearing board for his strategies and tactics.

Apiro loves chess and uses the game as an analogy to instruct his eager protégé.

“‘Sometimes chess can be that simple,’ said Apiro. ‘But remember the Kotov syndrome. Under pressure, a player can make extremely unwise decisions. The Poisoned Pawn variation is a good example. A player places a pawn where it can be easily captured . If the other player takes the bait, his own men are exposed to attack. But the ploy is risky, because it can reveal both sides’ weaknesses.'”

The poisoned pawn isn’t, however, just a chess move. And poisoned isn’t just a metaphorical descriptor. There is plenty of death – innocent, inadvertent, coolly calculated, retributive – and there is plenty of subtle strategizing as the stakes mount for both countries. Justice will be done, be assured, but in the process, shortcuts will be taken, extralegal tactics deployed, and culpability held to account in ways that stretch the ethical parameters.

Blair manages to package a considerable number of hot-button items into her sometimes strikingly unconventional plot: the ravages of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in both countries; the countless examples of pain and humiliation afflicted upon Canada’s First Nations over centuries of occupation; the extirpation of the Cuban natives, the Taínos; the ravages of the U.S. embargo of Cuba; the social discrepancies of a moribund Communist system; the economic cravenness of Canadians; the respective deficiencies to be found in the legal systems of both countries.

In fact, the author’s predilection for pontificating, her occasional rants that border on the self-righteous if not banal, distract from the strengths of a plot that is experimental in some ways, quick-paced and unpredictable. A clearer differentiation of voice, more nuanced characters and a willingness to avoid stereotyping cannot help but enrich a narrative style that is willing to take risks.

Death that comes from poison is administered either by chemical or by word; an atheist plays God in meting out justice; the suffering of the innocent is avenged; the “anomalies” find love; the new religion holds little appeal and the old religion surfaces in a way that transcends reason; integrity wins out against corruption but the straight ethical line of behaviour is held hostage by minute compromises; and the reader learns that the really gifted chess player is both patient and bold.

We haven’t seen the last of Ramirez.

Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.

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