In The Hemingway Caper, Eric Wright’s most recent detective novel, the protagonist, Joe Barley, is a university lecturer teaching the literature of dead white males to his students as he surreptitiously (and rather unbelievably) moonlights as a private eye. While staking out the movements of a married man, suspected by his wife of having an affair, Barley stumbles across the trail of a lost Hemingway manuscript. The “niche” that Wright is consciously courting here, of course, resides halfway between Barley’s identities as “instructing” and “detecting,” both of which (he himself would acknowledge) he performs in a rather mediocre fashion or, if this is overstatement, certainly without passion.
Carole, his long term partner, is a translator for the government and also lives dispassionately, blandly, with a tenuous connection to Barley and little connection to anyone else. When Carole’s sister, Arlette (a psychoanalyst), begins to question Barley’s attachment to Carole, Barley is confused as to her intentions and imagines that she is attempting to initiate an affair with him. Barley insists that any other option besides monogamy to Carole is out of the question, though one wonders why exactly. Later, it is revealed that Barley has misinterpreted Arlette’s questions and as the man (Tyler) he was hired to trail as a detective is discovered to be having an affair with his wife’s sister, Wright sets up an awkward moral foil between the two men and their respective relationships. The clumsiness is a result of the simplistic Hollywood morality of the book: good people are monogamous (Barley) and bad people are not (the charlatan book-seller/stealer, Tyler, who is the villain of the novel).
In trailing Tyler, Barley stumbles upon an urban myth that may have basis in fact: the mysterious missing Hemingway manuscript, which, in Toronto legend, was lost in a hotel when Hemingway stayed there briefly in the 1930s. Wright colors this legend with quirky characters: the widow of a late book dealer, the wealthy son of a hotel owner, a missing transient who may have run off with the manuscript, and, of course, the unscrupulous Jason Tyler who in addition to having a shady connection to the manuscript, is discovered to be not only cheating on his wife, but “doing it” with her sister (and possibly another woman as well). He’s that bad. As the situation progresses, Barley races around the streets of Toronto between classes, meetings and dull conversations with Carole, and Wright gives us the inside scoop on the back biting and politicking of a modern academic English department. Barley’s colleagues (Ginger, a Scottish man, and Masaka, a third generation Canadian-Japanese) represent interplay of the multiculturalism that Canada prides itself on. However, Barley’s out-dated and rather unaware Anglo-centrism is clumsy and he comes across, even when he later begins to acknowledge his assumptions, as boorish, patriarchal and patronizing. Here is his first exchange with Masaka:
Wright (and perhaps Barley) is being ironic here, of course, but the irony is telling: why is such an issue made out of her Japanese-ness? Being a third Canadian (of Japanese descent), she is referred to as “oriental” (in the “binary of occidental” sense), “exotic,” as having “foreign looks,” as being a “pretty little geisha.” Barley is surprised, he notes, that “a Japanese […] can speak my language so well” [p. 40]. Where has this guy been living? Certainly not in downtown Toronto, having taught in an academic environment for 10 years as Wright would have us believe Barley has done (Barley is ostensibly 35 years old; Wright is in his late 70s).
Throughout the action of the novel, Barley is constantly aware of the relationship that he imagines existing between Ginger (an academic playboy) and Masaka. His assumption is that they are having an affair and that he is interrupting them, residing as outsider between the two insiders with secret information about that pesky and hard to grasp Canadian multiculturalism. Partner Carole seems blandly jealous of Barley’s interest and fascination with Masaka (when Carole very occasionally looks up from her book). The reader, naturally, sees where Wright is going with this and when it is revealed that Masaka is a lesbian, it is no page-turner. It is obvious, in fact (she’s both an “ethnic” and a “lesbian,” isn’t diversity convenient?), and seems again to be a signal of the level at which Barley doesn’t live in the modern world of twenty-first-century Canada.
The passionate politicking in the English department at Hambleton College also seems outdated. Of course, academic English departments aren’t renowned for staying on top of trends and/or moving at modern speed, but here is where Wright’s conscious choice of a niche seems obscure: who cares about the inner workings of a university English department? Perhaps other academics might care, but how many academics are interested in the details of Toronto streets, restaurants, supermarkets, cafés, neighbourhoods, history? Did Wright construct this novel for his friends, and are his friends all straight white Canadian academics who live in Toronto?
Reading The Hemingway Caper, one wonders why Wright courts such an obscure niche. We are given our twenty-first-century signposts: stilted car chases, an awkward fight scene, a gruff Lou Grant type boss who is actually a softie under that tough exterior. We are given the speech about corporate greed, the final denouement where the old, wise and good woman gets the best of everyone and the bad guy gets his just desserts. Is Wright courting Hollywood? Well-written, but unoriginal and obscure, The Hemingway Caper is opening a new niche and a new kind of detective in Joe Barley, out of touch and boorish.
Note to any aspiring detective-writers: readers should like someone in your novel. Besides the sassy lesbian Japanese-Canadian English teacher, that is.