Inspector Luc Vanier was standing in a rainstorm at the intersection of Sherbrooke and Pie-IX, surveying the remnants of a car accident. A dark blue body bag was at his feet.
With those ominous words, McGill Law alumnus Peter Kirby kicks off his most recent crime novel, Vigilante Season. It’s the second fiction release from Kirby, who practices international law in addition to his burgeoning writing career. Although he doesn’t come across criminal law in his job, it’s something he’s always gravitated towards, and he feels the crime novel genre offers many literary possibilities beyond a straightforward narrative arc to discover who’s guilty.
“One thing is, it’s escapism,” he tells me. “Also, it can serve the purpose of talking about an awful lot of different things at the same time. In other words, what I write isn’t simply a mystery and you’ve got to solve the mystery [….] One of the things I find myself constantly drawn to explore is authority and power relations [….] Then, there’s the exploration of good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things, which is human nature.”
All of those themes are at play in Vigilante Season, which centres on a fictional struggle for authority and justice in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of Montreal.
“It’s this issue of who moves into the vacuum of a neglected neighbourhood,” Kirby explains, “and what happens if some local group organizes itself to control that neighbourhood when the police and the politicians have abandoned it.”
Kirby grew up in the UK and settled in Montreal after stints in Boston, New York, and Toronto. Even with so much exposure to different cities, he chose to set both of his novels in Montreal, and his writing is predicated on an authentically close engagement with his environment.
“You have these fantasies of ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to set a book in London,’ but I don’t have the same feel for the street in London that I would have in Montreal. I once heard a writer say that he was setting his book in a particular place, and he had discovered that you actually don’t need to visit the place. You could do it on Google and street views and stuff like that, and I just don’t understand that.”
Kirby goes on to talk about the advantage of tapping into the essence of places and their evolution over periods of time—before poking some fun at a street not far from McGill.
“Just south of the Roddick Gates, there’s that street where you’ve got the back of The Bay, you’ve got parking lots, and it’s one of the ugliest streets,” says Kirby. “I’m not sure if it’s President Kennedy or the one further south, but it’s one of the ugliest streets that makes pedestrians feel bad because of the physical geography of the place. But then you can walk on certain streets in Griffintown and you feel like a human.”
When Kirby arrived in Montreal in the seventies, he was far from becoming the established lawyer he is today. He had been supporting himself through various restaurant jobs, and when he decided that it was time to give academia a shot, McGill didn’t initially take him very seriously.
“I showed up at the admissions office and said ‘I’d like to get an education.’ I thought that’s how it was done. And they looked at me and said, ‘What are you, nuts?’”
Having few academic records from high school and only being available for night classes didn’t help his cause. Eventually, as he says with a chuckle, they just told him, “‘Why don’t you just walk up the street and go see Concordia.’”
So he did, and a few years later, an honours economics degree from Concordia was his ticket to the McGill Faculty of Law. Since then, things have worked out nicely for Kirby, and he’s happily committed to continuing the Luc Vanier saga, with another novel underway.
“It becomes easier to write a book with an established character in the sense that you don’t have to create him from scratch. But he keeps changing on you, and you sometimes wonder who’s in control, the character or the writer, because things happen in a serendipitous way.”
It’ll be interesting to see where Vanier ends up next—perhaps even in the Milton-Parc district.