About halfway through Wayne Arthurson’s new novella, The Red Chesterfield, the reader learns that the protagonist, M, is Indigenous. The reader then comes to see that this fact is entirely irrelevant to the story. In a way, that’s the whole point: that the protagonist’s race is incidental. It has nothing to do with the actual plot, which can be described as an unconventional mystery involving a red chesterfield, a dismembered foot, and a cast of colourful characters mixed together with a dash of Kafka.
Arthurson, who is of Cree and French Canadian descent, has taken issue with a mystery sub-genre he calls “Indigenous crime fiction.” In a Quill & Quire article in 2018, he lamented the fact that the field is rife with mysteries by non-Indigenous authors that exploit well-worn stereotypes: the stoic warrior, the magic Indian, the corrupt chief, the wise elder, and so on. Perversely, and sadly, their proliferation creates a false authenticity, making it difficult for Indigenous authors to get published when these familiar stereotypes are missing from their manuscripts.
To be clear, Arthurson is not arguing that these works are the product of misappropriation. “The Native American crime books written by non-Indigenous writers are entertaining in their own way,” he says in the same piece. “Primarily set in rural locations, these books are usually very big on landscapes, and get many details correct about the beauty and breadth of the land. But they are still populated with stereotypes about Indigenous people.”
The Red Chesterfield sets out not only to bust a sub-genre that is as tired and, increasingly, offensive as the Lone Ranger and Tonto but to turn many of the conventions of traditional mysteries on their head. Unlike most mystery protagonists, M is not a hard-bitten private detective; he’s a city bylaw officer who discovers a red chesterfield lying in a ditch. Initially, his mission is to find the person who dumped it there and give them a ticket. But when he finds a running shoe containing a dismembered foot wedged in the cushions, our hero is unwittingly and unwillingly pulled into a murder investigation.
Told in one-to-two-page — sometimes one-to-two-sentence — quick flashes of prose, the story unfolds at a dreamlike pace that ebbs and flows. There are several instances — such as when M falls asleep (once in police custody) or when he drifts into flashbacks — that serve to slow the story. M never dreams when he sleeps, he is simply carried away, and when he awakes, he finds himself transitioned to a calmer state of being. So, too, the reader is lulled into thinking that the worst is over for him.
Arthurson has fun with common mystery tropes, and in so doing he breaks a variety of rules associated with the genre. The chesterfield itself is a McGuffin, a term that has been attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. McGuffins are devices that serve as plot triggers: think the black bird in the classic film The Maltese Falcon. Typically, a McGuffin is used once in a story and then fades into the background, having served the purpose of setting the narrative in motion. Not so here. Arthurson shamelessly and repeatedly uses the red chesterfield, having it show up again and again, each time spurring M into action.
Cautious and self-effacing to a fault, M is not your standard crime-fighting lead. He is a reluctant hero who shies away from getting involved, preferring to stay in what he calls the Green Zone, which refers to a state of mind: “You aren’t always happy in the Green Zone, but you are safe and fully aware of the world, responding to it from a good place in your brain.” It differs from the Blue Zone, in which a person shuts down completely, or the Red Zone, a place of anger, fear, and other intense emotions. Staying in the Green Zone, combined with his cautious nature and love of order, is what M thinks makes him a good bylaw officer.
However, M’s natural caution can be stultifying. On answering a plea to find a missing person, he spends twenty minutes racked with indecision. He doubts himself and his authority — “Obviously, the police can help Yuri’s wife much more than I can” — and worries about overstepping in his “already tenuous” job situation. He is not someone ready to leap into action, as we are used to finding in a mystery.
Arthurson provides more than just an unlikely protagonist. There’s the potential femme fatale who describes herself as “not a sexual being.” We also meet the understanding police detective who’s always ready to believe M’s theories concerning the red chesterfield. At one point, when M has been drugged, he wakes to find himself not bound and gagged but covered with a blanket and cared for by the wife of a suspect. That same suspect shows more immediate concern for M’s mental state, after the shock of finding that foot, than he does for proving his own innocence. Even the line that seems to appear in all crime novels, “Don’t leave town,” is delivered in a friendly manner by an overly polite cop. Clearly rules are being broken here.
Perhaps the biggest slap to the mystery tradition is delivered by M’s brother, J. He chastises, rather than praises, M for getting involved in the events surrounding the red chesterfield: “Yes, finding the foot and that body were terrible for you, but instead of dealing with them in a mature way, you acted like some kind of private detective, trying to solve the crime. That’s not your job, that’s the job of the police.”
Imagine delivering this lecture to a busybody like Miss Marple.
In the end, nothing is neatly tied up, the crime is not solved, and there is no convenient recap of who did what to whom, and why. The reader never learns who the foot belonged to, nor who was responsible for the dead body M discovers. The mysteries actually multiply endlessly: “I sit there, asking questions I asked myself a while ago. Who put the Red Chesterfield here? Whose foot did I find in the original Red Chesterfield? Who put Pyjama Man under the other Red Chesterfield? Was he murdered?” M simply finds out that he is no longer a person of interest to the police; he knows only that he may be called upon to testify as a witness at some point. Case closed?
All the standard conventions have been broken, and the reader is left hanging — but not unsatisfied. This is not surprising given that The Red Chesterfield is part of the Brave & Brilliant series published by the University of Calgary Press. The goal of the series is to provide a platform for “strong and unique” voices and to “entertain and engage readers with fresh and energetic approaches to storytelling.” This is certainly the case here. Arthurson has more than pushed the envelope of mainstream mystery narratives, while taking aim at the stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous people that so pervade the genre.
It should be noted that Arthurson, a former journalist, is quite capable of writing a traditional mystery and has penned an award-winning crime series that features Leo Desroches, who is also of Cree and French Canadian descent. Desroches lives in Edmonton, works for a newspaper, and, like many fictional detectives, has a large amount of emotional baggage, plus a gambling addiction to go with it. However, unlike M, he does solve the crime.