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Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Dodge City Run by the NWMP by Vicki Delany
Vicki Delany writes everything from standalone novels of suspense (Burden of Memory, Scare the Light Away) to a traditional village/police procedural series set in B.C. (Valley of the Lost, In the Shadow of the Glacier) to a light-hearted historical series (Gold Digger) set during the Klondike Gold Rush. In April 2007, Vicki took early retirement from her job as a systems analyst and sold her house in Oakville, Ontario. After a year travelling across North America, she is now setting down to the rural life in Prince Edward County, where she rarely wears a watch. Her next novel is Winter of Secrets, coming in November from Poisoned Pen Press, the third in the Constable Molly Smith series. Vicki's web site is www.vickidelany.com and she blogs at Type M for Murder (http://typem4murder.blogspot.com), and Fiona MacGillivray and Constable Molly Smith blog at http://klondikeandtrafalgar.blogspot.com/
Watch the exciting trailer for Valley of the Lost,
Dodge City Run by the NWMP
By Vicki Delany
Thanks very much to Kaye for giving me space on this wonderful blog to babble away. First, I’d like to let everyone know about a fabulous little mystery-lovers event coming up. The Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival is held on Wolfe Island (just outside Kingston, Ontario) every summer to celebrate Canadian crime writing. Wolfe Island is the birthplace of Grant Allen, Canada’s first crime writer, and the Grant Allen Award is given every year to recognize a pioneer in Canadian crime writing. This year’s festival is on Saturday August 15th. The guest of honour, and Grand Allen Award Recipient, will be Peter Robinson. Sandra Parshall and others of split personality would love it: the Festival is small and intimate. You need to take a short (free) ferry ride from Kingston, Ontario to get there, and your ticket gives you not only authors’ readings, a lecture on a subject of interest to mystery fans, an authors’ panel, an interview with Peter Robinson, plenty of time to meet and greet and buy books and have them signed, but you ALSO get lunch and a proper Church Supper. Can’t be beat. For more info and to buy tickets, please go to www.sceneofthecrime.ca. I am giving the workshop this year (part of the Festival, but an additional fee to attend) and the topic is Creating Fully Realized Characters: Protagonist, Villain and Everyone in Between.
Back to our regularly scheduled programme. I enjoyed the piece by Ken Lewis about how dark influences in his life are reflected in his fiction. By contrast, my newest book, Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery, came from a happy place in my life. I was on a wilderness canoeing trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park some years ago. Sitting around the campfire watching stars, listening to the wind in the trees and the waves lapping against the rock, we chatted about nothing in particular, as people do in those circumstances. I commented on how strange our ancestors would have thought us – to be paying good money, and using our valuable vacation time, to do what they would have thought of as sheer hardship. Several of the people on the trip were Europeans so I began telling them about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99 and the incredible journey over the mountains the gold-seekers had to endure to get there.
Wouldn’t that make a nice setting for a mystery novel, I thought, and the idea for Gold Digger was born.
You may have heard the phrase by the late Sir Peter Ustinov that Toronto is “New York run by the Swiss.” I like to say that Dawson, Yukon, in 1898, was Dodge City run by the North West Mounted Police.
Imagine a place in the wilderness, close to the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. A place of no roads, no cars, no trains, no telegraph. Accessible only by water, for just a few months a year, or by paths over mountains so steep that horses couldn’t make it. And then imagine tens of thousands of people arriving in this place within a matter of months.
What you would get in almost any other place and any other time would be bedlam. Chaos and anarchy and lawlessness.
But what they did have in the Yukon was the North West Mounted Police (precursors of the RCMP). The border between Canada and the U.S. was at that time still in dispute. The Canadian government had established a police presence in order to strengthen their claim. So what all those miners dance hall owners, prostitutes and pimps, bartenders and adventurers, and businessmen (respectable and shady) found when they finally arrived in the promised land, was the long arm of the law waiting for them.
At that time prostitution and gambling were illegal in all parts of Canada. But the NWMP recognized, wisely in my opinion, that some things were going to happen whether they were legal or not, and the police would be better off having some control. Thus prostitution was practiced openly and dance halls all had a gambling room. Police oversight was strict and they could, and did, close down any business stepping over the line. At the same there were things the Mounties didn’t bend on – the use of ‘vile language’ was an offence, and Sunday closing was strictly observed. People were jailed for chopping wood for their own homes on a Sunday. Guns were strictly banned. Every person coming into the Territory was required to have a year’s supply of goods with them: A lesson learned during the previous winter when the town nearly starved. Not only did all those adventure-and-gold seekers have to climb the Chilkoot Pass they had to do it about 30 or 40 times to get all their gear up. Tougher people than me I can tell you.
In 1898, the year of the height of the Gold Rush, when the town of Dawson had a population of 40,000, there was not one murder in town. Not one. Reports I have read say that people were comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and their possessions out in the open. In contrast to the nearby town of Skagway, Alaska, where gangsters such as Soapy Smith ruled and crime and corruption was rampant.
In a town where a one minute dance with a dance hall girl cost a dollar, and a bottle of champagne would set you back 40 bucks, and successful miners were known to drop a thousand, ten thousand dollars (all in 1898 funds!) in a night in the casino, a constable in the NWMP earned $1.25 a day (which was roughly the rate for a labourer in the Outside). Yet the police were largely incorruptible.
I have attempted to capture that contrast between a wild frontier settlement and a well-policed Canadian town in Gold Digger, and to largely stay in that ‘happy place’ that was the origins of the book. Because it is, after all, a mystery novel, I have had to ignore the no-murder record of the NWMP.
Sometimes, you just can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.