This was recommended to me by my friend Keith. So imagine my surprise, when Keith himself shows up as late in the novel as a reporter. I don’t know if that breaks my own stated conflict of interest rules for this blog, but I’m certain that it breaks Keith’s.
Black Rock is a police procedural set during the FLQ crisis of 1970. Like the other Montréal-based crime novel that I’ve read so far this year, this one also seems hellbent on explaining where all of Montreal’s streets are. There is a lot of discussion about the various autoroutes, ways in and out of NDG, and the location of various buildings in and around the McGill University campus and what is now the campus of Concordia University. As with Sugar Puss on Dorchester Street, I know a lot of this area well because I spent six years of my life at McGill. It was during this time that I spent afternoons hanging out at the bookstore run it by Keith. He was regularly recommending crime novels to me at that point, but I wasn’t really listening to him then. I've finally begun trying to catch up to his recommendations.
I read this book on a flight to Frankfurt Germany and in the wake of the attack in Quebec City that killed six people in prayer at a Muslim mosque. It puts the book in perspective. Black Rock has a lot to say about québécois identity politics, but it is all set in terms of Francophone-Anglophone relations. Indeed, I don’t think that there is a person of colour mentioned in the book other than Jimi Hendrix. Still, some of the ugliest elements of québécois nationalism during the period of its radical insurgency are the subject of the book. During my time at McGill, which overlapped with the second referendum, there remained a certain fascination with, and even celebration of, the FLQ and its vision of a radically Marxist rewriting of Québécois society. Jacques Parizeau ripped the mask off of that dream-image with his famous “money and the ethnic vote” speech in 1995, and this book is sometimes at pains to remind its readers of the connections between the nationalist impulse and an intolerance of difference that played out again last week.
Last night at dinner, with a half dozen American cognitive scientists, eating in northern Germany, conversation turned towards the nationalist impulses of Donald Trump. In light of our location, the conversation took on a darkly ironic tone. At the other end of the table, issues with cultural integration were being debated. Canada was held up by some as a model for all, but as I pointed out recent events In Quebec City demonstrate how far we are from an ideal to be emulated. Black Rock, whose very title reminds us of a sin against immigrants, is a fictional deep dive into the history of one of Canada’s biggest social problems.