Fraser Nixon’s debut novel is a fast, sharp piece of work. Novels with plots and titles like this one are easily filed under crime fiction, but this is one of countless instances where artificial divisions of genre do readers a disservice; in the subtlty of Nixon’s examination of the consequences of violence, the meticulousness of the plot, and the beauty of the language The Man Who Killed is as literary as anything out there. It might be thought of as noir for people who think they don’t like noir, in the same way that Patrick DeWitt’s justly praised The Sisters Brothers is a western for people who think they don’t like westerns.
The setting is Montreal, 1926, an era when men were men and hookers were dollymops, when one lit cigarets with lucifers and wore a brim out in public. Nixon’s delight in the language is evident. Period language aside, he perfectly captures the linguistic chaos that exists in Montreal to this day, the crazy mashups of English and French — “Fugitive pensées straying […]” — and the ever-present tension between the two solitudes.
The narrator, Mick, isn’t the man he would have liked to become. His fugitive pensées are dark. In the recent past he was a promising medical student at McGill University, but all that’s gone now; a morphine addiction ruined his chances at respectability and got him kicked out of school. He’s recently returned to the city after an agonizing period spent fighting off his habit in a far-off cabin. He’s off the drug, but only barely, fragile and out of place, hands shaking as he lights his cigarettes. He was raised in west coast Canadian logging camps and in Vancouver, in a polyglot chaos of English, French, Cantonese, and Chinook; home, if that’s what it is, is 2,000 miles away. He misses the ocean.
If I’m to be honest, I suspect my admiration for the book’s language is tinged with nostalgia. Fraser Nixon was born on the west coast (of Canada, one presumes, although his author bio doesn’t specify), as was I, and in The Man Who Killed he carries the slang of our corner of the world with him. I can’t remember the last time I heard the word skookum spoken aloud, for instance, let alone saw it in print.
Mick knows few people in the city. His former colleagues at McGill, all witnesses to his disgrace; his former girlfriend, Laura, whose withdrawal from his life has left him reeling and heartbroken; and now Jack, his best friend, his almost-brother, taken in as an orphan by Mick’s strict father when Mick and Jack were young, raised as a favored son. After a mysterious period of travel — postcards from here and there around the continental United States — Jack has surfaced in Montreal.
The American Prohibition laws have translated to significant business opportunities in the shady export sector of the Canadian economy, and Jack has become involved in the liquor trade. Jack is Mick’s mirror, a sort of shadow; gregarious where Mick is retiring, elegant and confident where Mick is shabby and uncertain. Mick, adrift and at loose ends, no money and no prospects, is easily recruited as a sideman. He’s already tried to be a good man, and it hasn’t worked out particularly well. Why not turn to crime, when all efforts at respectability have failed? And if you’ve already turned to crime, how easy it is to take each criminal act a half-step further than the last. A simple delivery run collapses into bloodshed and mayhem; theft turns quickly to murder; it’s easier to kill a loved one when you’ve already killed a stranger. The book is at times darkly funny, but ultimately a chronicle of a disastrous slide.
There are one or two false notes — two-thirds of the way through the book seems an odd time to inform us, appropos of pretty much nothing, of Mick and Jack’s respective eye colors — but these are few and far between. This is a tremendously impressive debut.