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What the Critics Said




In my young-boy-at-the-movie days Frankenstein gripped me in black-and-white terror up to the scene where the townspeople storm the castle armed with torches, pitchforks, flails and even, if I remember correctly, those poles used to prop up clotheslines. But there wasn’t a snow shovel in the bunch. Dumbfounded, I searched the weapons again as the mob chased the monster across the moors. Not a single snow shovel. That’s when the movie became mere make-believe. It wasn’t Canada.

The snow shovel casts a long-handled shadow over the Canadian character. A mere dusting of snow is broom work. But when the deep stuff falls the snow shovel is cock of the walk. (He rather fancies the broom. In the right light she looks like a hula dancer. His sometime summer replacement the push broom, the one with the big fat moustache, has eyes for her, too. Can you believe it?)

When the snow divides Canadians one from the other we shovel ourselves back together again, being sure to clear a good path to our front door. “Come on in,” we’re saying. “We’ve got nothing to hide.” There are terrible stories among us about the shiftless or reclusive people who do not shovel their walks, people Death himself refuses to visit because he only wears three-buckle galoshes.

And when we are done shoveling we bury the snow shovel in a drift by the front door as a pledge to the world that, by god, if it snows again we’ll shovel it again. By ‘we’ we mean the young boy, of course. He comes to partner with the snow shovel early. The snow shovel gives his long smile with the tucked-up ends and whispers as they work, “Riddle me this, laddie-buck, which of us is the beast of burden here?”

The snow shovel has burdened the country’s literature from the very beginning. Chekhov stipulated that any weapon waved about in Act I must be used by the final curtain to murder someone, or to commit suicide with or to go off accidentally effecting some turn of plot.

When the curtain rises for a Canadian Act I there’s the snow shovel leaning by the door down to the cellar. The audience knows what’s going to happen. Snow shovels don’t go off by accident. Nor can you use one to commit suicide. Just try. So the only suspense is who’s going to murder whom and will it be with the blunt side of the shovel or the cutting edge.

Enter two housemaids with feather dusters. As they work the women talk of how unhappy their mistress is, the pale and beautiful Lorna MacDoone, how badly her husband, miserly Angus MacDoone, treats her and how it would serve him right if she ran off with handsome Gaylord Richfield, the wealthy bachelor visiting relatives who live next door.

Suddenly the maids hear their master’s voice in the hall and exit by another door and for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t noticed the snow shovel, one of them playfully dusts its handle. (The snow shovel considers the feather dusters flirts, for the moment at least, his heart remains with the broom.)

Enter a glowering Angus MacDoone. He calls his wife‘s name and when she does not come he crosses to the window that, as the maids have told us, looks out on the house Richfield is visiting. He stands at the window with his hands clasped behind his back while raising himself up on tiptoe several times to indicate his over-wrought emotional state. Then he turns back into the room, espies the snow shovel and, in an act of Canadian daring, he crosses to it, waves it about in a Chekhovian manner and pitches it down the cellar steps.

Powell’s first rider to Chekhov’s stipulation is that any snow shovel thrown down the cellar steps in Act I will come creeping back up near the end of Act III.

And, see, here it comes. Her noble brow aquiver Lorna MacDoone emerges quietly from the cellar carrying the snow shovel. She has decided to run away with Richfield and they need an extra shovel to help him dig out his expensive car. She had entered the living room by the side door and was about to leave the same way when she hears Angus, who is hunched over his books muttering, “Fifteen two, fifteen four and a pair is six.” (Canadian arithmetic has made the country’s accounting practices famous around the world.) She starts to leave and then, with a what-the-hell shrug, she comes up behind him and raises the snow shovel over her head flat side down because she is wearing her new traveling clothes. The curtain falls.

And it is the same on the Canadian mystery novel. He shoots her. She poisons him. The first question the Canadian reader asks is why didn’t they use the snow shovel. And you can’t explain it away as a spur of the moment thing. The tool shed is only a hop, skip and a jump away, the cellar somewhat less. Canadians are a frugal and sensible people. Why buy poison, why spend good money on bullets when you’ve got the handy old snow shovel? No, Canadians will insist on an entire chapter detailing why the murderer didn’t use the snow shovel. Omit it and the reader will lay the book aside when he’s done with a “Well, that was an unsatisfactory read.” The snow shovel leaning next to the cellar door will smile. And Squill and Squire, Canada’s magazine of bulb gardening and the country life, won’t bother to review the book at all.

To escape the tyranny of the snow shovel Canadian mystery writers have invented the summer-cottage novel set on the vast archipelago of lakes north of every major city. These tedious family sagas bring together three well-armed generations for a summer vacation of sibling squabbling and scheming.

The author hopes the reader will not notice the figure flitting about among the trees or peeking in at the window. But a Canadian wise in the ways of cottage country recognizes Old Tom, the local handyman who shovels the snow off cottage roofs in the winter. For him summer is only a bad dream. He watches, hoping the cottagers will go back where they came from and leave him in peace. So why pack an arsenal, the Canadian reader wonders? Why not just borrow the handyman’s snow shovel?

The poet calls April the cruelest month because as the snow begins to melt we find the corpses inside the snowmen and under the snowdrifts. Then the ice breaks up on the creek and we discover the Blodget family’s Ford Gadabout sedan in the swimming hole with one suicide and three murder victims inside.

Then one day the Canadian comes back home after another funeral and decides it’s time to take the snow shovel down to the cellar or over to the tool shed. Out of sight, out of mind, you say? Yes, if you mean out of mind like the family madman in the attic. But it’ll be a long time before you forget the snow shovel. The last patch of snow is always the one in the shade by the front door where the snow shovel stood all winter. See the mark where it stood? See the mark it made? Like the smile of the Cheshire cat, that mark is always the last to go.


Copyright © 2003 by James Powell. This article first appeared in the Mystery Readers Journal (Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 2003-2004) www.mysteryreaders.org

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