When a new novel by Peggy Blair hits the shelves well that’s cause for celebration in my house. Peggy Blair has been one of my favourite Canadian authors since The Beggar’s Opera turned me back onto reading after a lengthy period of duty reads. Now Blair has written a third novel, Hungry Ghosts, fairly fast on the heels of The Poisoned Pawn. Happily for me because I don’t like to wait long between novels for her next instalment.
Peggy Blair’s first novel, The Beggar’s Opera, won me over with her rich cast of characters and intriguing magical realism of sorts. Her main character, Inspector Ricardo Ramirez sees ghosts after all and they hang around sometimes pointing him in the right direction, or triggering a clue of some sort that eventually sets him on a path towards solving these complex mysteries and murders. Blair’s novels rarely disappoint. They are well written and the characters are smart, but the part that I always fall in love with is the setting. With brilliant three dimensional characters playing out their lives against the rich dramatic territory of Cuba, it’s almost impossible not to be transported straight onto the streets of Havana beside the likes of Ramirez. One day I will take another vacation in Cuba and head there packing all of Blair’s novels so that I can fully appreciate the plot for how detailed and realistic it is. (I once did that with Hemingway in university because I enjoy reading authors where they worked at writing, or where they set their plots.)
Hungry Ghosts is quite simply excellent, and rivals The Beggar’s Opera as Blair’s best work. She has rapidly become one of my favourite Canadian authors, if not one of my favourite authors writing fiction at all. While investigating an art heist in Canada, Ramirez encounters his first ghost of this particular plot. In The Beggar’s Opera at first when Ramirez encountered ghosts he began to wonder if he was experiencing Alzheimer’s or dementia and the psychological portion of that inner conflict made for some rich reading material. That continues somewhat in Poisoned Pawn, but by Hungry Ghosts Ramirez seems to understand their purpose a bit more than previously. He still struggles with plenty of inner psychological conflict but he also recognizes that each time While dead prostitutes turn up in Havana and our favourite detective is back on the case. This instalment in the Ramirez series of novels reminded me most of my experience reading The Beggar’s Opera. The plot is tight and the mystery remains pretty much a page turner until near the end. I did not guess the outcome of this one until it was unravelling in front of me.
I also enjoyed the rich First Nations subplot featuring Charlie Pike in Hungry Ghosts. Peggy Blair, an Ottawa lawyer, now author of three books in this series is a real Canadian treasure. She tackles on reservation politics believably and she also touches on the harm done by residential schools many years ago. Incest, violence, gangs, drugs and secrets are all plot points that jumpstart the back story and give further dimensions and insight into Charlie Pike’s character. That’s a really smart investment in character, and the mark of an author who really wears her characters so well that they become part of the reader’s daily life.
I can’t say enough about this author actually. There were moments when I got bogged down in my own work here and that meant I had to set this novel aside for a bit. But, Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair is such a great read it demands to be consumed and attended to. Even the title is witty and right. Blair is not overly lyrical or fanciful as a writer. She’s not self indulgent either. Her words, characters, plot and setting are extremely balanced and purposeful. In fact, sometimes reading a novel I am too easily tripped into remembering that the plot is a construct and find myself wondering how did the writer do this and what was the reasoning here and why did the author choose that word? Hazard of being a writer myself I suppose. But here, in this series I don’t do that. There is rarely a reason to question this plot. Blair continues to evolve as a writer and I wait impatiently for each new novel she writes.
I was sent a copy of this book for purposes of review. My opinion is my own.
Hungry Ghosts is by Peggy Blair, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada, 394 pages, $19.99