The John MacLachlan Gray Interview

This conversation took place on May 4th, 2024, in Vancouver. It has been edited for length and for clarity.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author John MacLachlan Gray about his most recent book, Mr. Good-Evening, the third book in his Raincoast Noir series. Continuing in the vein of the first two novels, The White Angel, and Vile Spirits, Gray’s crime novel is a captivating romp through seedy 1920s Vancouver, a city at the edge of the Empire, that for all its remoteness saw its share of intrigue, political mayhem, and murder.

When a prominent Vancouver Stock Exchange broker turns up dead and full of holes, his secretary, Dora Decker is the most likely suspect, and her high-heeled shoe, the most likely weapon. With “The Fatal Flapper” case, Gray’s steadfast trio returns: Detective Inspector Calvin Hook; former Hello Girl, now landlady, Mildred Wickstram; and the journalist Ed McCurdy, newly elevated to the position of Canadian National Railway’s radio personality Mr. Good-Evening. In a bid to exonerate the flapper, the three return to their habits of previous tales, exchanging intel over sidecars in private clubs and ponies of whiskey in the dingy loges of the Pantages Theatre. This will be no easy task for the trio, who will be dogged by the continued incompetence of governmental forces, the stealthy impact of American mobsters, and the increasingly present and dangerous influence of the Brother XII Cult. 

Ranging from the quotidian urban experiences of the 1920s to the local influence of American mobsters and the perennial wet coast presence of esoteric cults, Gray’s tome offers a host of vivid historical figures slipping between events whose longitude extends from the merely idiosyncratic to the genuinely bizarre, leaving one to suspect that Gray had as much fun researching this book as he did writing it. Fast-paced and humorous, Mr. Good-Evening promises a gratifying adventure, where the truths of British Columbia’s past are definitely stranger than fiction. 

Christina: You are adept at using archetypes and historical events to give life to your characters, and while your latest Raincoast Noir book is set in Vancouver in 1929, the lingering impacts of WWI continue to influence your characters and events. This shadow extends not only over the political players, often generals and the like, but also within the more mundane interactions between central and even peripheral characters, suggesting a sustained impact of the war on the psyches of people who lived through its events. I’m curious about how you first became interested in The Great War and what it is about that period that has continued to call to you.   

John: Sure, Billy Bishop Goes to War got me interested in the Great War. But you can’t read about the war in the air without reading about the war on the ground. That was where the devastating stuff happened.

As we got older, Eric (Peterson) and I came to realize that what Billy Bishop was really about, is basically that war is just like life, only way faster.  In peace or war, if you live, if you survive, you get to witness the death of your friends.  These kids, basically in six months, went through what people try to get their heads around over a whole lifetime. 

So a lot of them came back really messed up, physically messed up, to a phenomenal degree. I mean, the shrapnel wounds sure, but also the effect on the mind. The opinion at the time was that insanity was caused by alcoholism, mental illness, and masturbation. But then all these guys came back who were heroes, Boy Scouts, and they came back different. So they opened up the men’s wing in the mental hospital in Riverdale. 

Everyone knew somebody who had been killed, knew somebody who was wounded, knew somebody who talked funny or had something else wrong, just by walking down the street. You look at the picture of the Vancouver Amputees Association and it could be the graduating class of a major school.

CB:Given that you were born in 1946, does your interest in these ideas extend to the Second World War?

JG: That’s interesting. My father was in the Air Force, in radar, chasing V1s. Growing up in Hopewell, Nova Scotia, his best friend was John West, he named me after him, and he was a Spitfire pilot who went down supporting Normandy; part of Johnny Johnson’s squadron. 

But once you get into the Second World War, it’s a different thing. In WWI, you’re dealing with kites with motors attached, they’re all experiments, right? You’re learning from the ground up. They’d ask questions like, do you ride a horse? Do you ski?  It was about balance. Do you hunt? But in the Second World War, the purpose of a fighter plane was to protect the position of the bomber. And so the high scorers were kind of dodgy because often they went off chasing scores when they should have been protecting the bombers. Buzz Beurling was the big offender. He judged angles by looking at the stars and you know, Wayne Gretzky judged angles in a very similar way.

CB: With your play Billy Bishop Goes to War and your Raincoast Noir series, is there something particular about this period and its aftermath that lends itself to murder mysteries and crime novels?

JG: Oh, gosh, well, I mean, if you’re interested in a period in a society, you know, you want to read about its crimes.

I don’t think of myself as a mystery writer, because mysteries, as a genre, they only have one plot. The sleuth, a murder, the sleuth investigates a series of things and the sleuth finds the murderer. And maybe a shadow of a plot underneath, a couple or something, but there is really one plot, like with PD James or any of the mystery writers. Now, crime novels, you’ve got more than one, and I have two or three subplots I like to juggle with.

CB: How did you go about publishing the Raincoast Noir series?

JG: Well, frankly, I thought I was finished publishing novels because the big guys didn’t want to publish me anymore. And the whole thing with Conde Nast and those buyouts, it changed the whole business model: now they don’t invest in authors, they invest in books.

So I thought, I’ve been writing all my life so I’ll just keep writing and I don’t care if it publishes or not but I will keep my own mind interested. And I was always and am still interested in crime novels.

And as soon as you get into Vancouver, and you get into the post-World War I period, well we’re at the very edge of the Empire. Other than Australia, you can’t get more outpost. And yet, world events came to call. The whole dope smuggling thing through the poppy trade, the silk train, the alcohol trade, Communism, Fascism. The events of the world were actually happening in Vancouver, just on a different scale.

CB: The Brother XII cult on de Courcy Island is a good example: a British mystic who would become one of Canada’s most notorious cult leaders. When you first learned about the cult, was there an immediate connection, a feeling that you had to write him into one of your books?

JG: I have been wanting to write that since back when I was at the Tamahnous Theatre Company, when we talked about trying to do Brother XII. We’d actually done some research and I was asked to write a screenplay about Brother XII.  He was a complete and utter fraud, by the way.

It’s like the trial in The White Angel, the Absurdism of it, I didn’t have to make up anything. I had to kind of compress and edit and cherry pick, but it was all right there. With Brother XII I didn’t have to cherry pick at all. The judge barking like a dog, that absolutely happened. It was all there. Now, I inflated the situation at the end, though he did burn the settlement down, they trashed the place before they took off. The only thing that I did was to add a sub plot, which connects it to Vancouver through the lawyer. I needed to connect the two. I love the technicality of plot construction.

CB: What was your research process like for creating Brother XII and his cult?  Did you end up going out to de Courcy Island?

JG: I have been up there to de Courcy and Mudge and stuff. I wrote a book about Edgar Allan Poe called Not Quite Dead, a crime novel, but I never went to Richmond or I never went to Philadelphia because all you would see would be tourist sites and stuff. So if you want to know what it was like, you’ve got to go through a lot of photographs and a lot of current memoirs.

CB: I wanted to ask you about George Paris. I just loved this character. He’s a bartender and bouncer at the Quadra Club where McCurdy lives, but he’s also a jazz musician. Like so many of your characters, he’s based on a real person, who also happens to come from your hometown of Truro, Nova Scotia. 

JG: George Paris was a real guy and everything I say about him was true. He was in Montreal and he was a drummer and he did know the boxer Jack Johnson. I ran across him, and I said I want to use him as a character, any way I can get George Paris, I’ll do it. I really like working with people like Paris, where I make up as little as I can.

McCurdy started off as Earl Birney, who worked for a paper out of Marpole. And Mr Good-Evening was of course based on the genuine “Mr. Good-Evening”, Earle Kelly, who was Canada’s first broadcasting personality. Everything I say about Mr. Good-Evening is true, except that Mr. Good-Evening would wear evening dress and he was Australian. He did work for the Province. And he did get the radio job because of his voice, and he read the news.

The characters pull the plot, but the plot pulls the characters too, because once you’ve got a group, you’ve got a petri dish, and they start interacting. And stuff happens, little kernels and fragments of scenes that take over the story.

CB: Is there a possibility that McCurdy, Wickstram, and Hook will return in a fourth book? Maybe taking place during the Great Depression?

JG: It’s possible. I have an idea set in 1934, the year before the Battle of Ballantyne Pier. You’d be  surprised how much fascism there was then, enthusiastic fascism. It was in Vancouver. The Shipper’s Federation, they occupied this one building that’s still on Richards St (The Lumberman’s Building, 509 Richards Street). They were the ones who hired and trained the goons. It was also the headquarters of the Vancouver Fascist Association.

I don’t know if I want to have Hook in there. I may move them into the Provincial Police. I have an idea where he gets Detective Quam to switch to the provincial police force. But what I’m really interested in is having Quam go up to Northern Ontario to investigate the Bedaux Expedition.

Charles Bedaux was a French-American industrialist, the fifth richest man in America for awhile. Wallis Simpson and Edward the VII were married at his castle. And he did these expeditions. I see a connection between his expedition and Heinrich Himmler’s search for the earliest versions of the Aryan race. 

Bedaux’s company was an efficiency system. And those films like Metropolis, they were all about the Bedaux System (a system devised to reduce inefficiencies in industry and maximize productivity)  and its dehumanizing aspects. And all the companies were using it, all the way from Standard Oil to GM to GE – then they dropped it. His biggest contract was with Germany, and the Nazis nationalized it. 

CB: Historical mystery shows like Murdoch Mysteries are very popular. Do you think your characters would translate well to the small screen?

JG: Well, there is a company that has the rights to the three books. Usually when you get an option, you take them out and you never hear back from them again. But they did come back again, they came back about a year and a half later and said we need to renew this. But, you know, Christina, I don’t really care that much. I mean, it doesn’t really matter to me. It would be fun to see. The director who they have in mind, it’s the director for The Girl With the Pearl Earring. He’s from Australia and has an affinity for the material.  A really smart guy.

John MacLachlan Gray is a writer-composer-performer for stage, film, television, radio and print. He is best known for his stage musicals (including the phenomenally successful Billy Bishop Goes to War), for his satirical videos on CBC-TV’s The Journal, and for his weekly column for The Globe and Mail. He has published seven acclaimed crime novels and has received many awards, including a Golden Globe, the Governor General’s Medal and the Order of Canada. He lives in Vancouver, BC, with his wife, Beverlee, two cats, and his personal demons.

Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre (April 27, 2024)
Harcover 6″ x 9″ | 320pp
ISBN: 9781771623957

Christina Barber is a writer and educator who lives in Vancouver. An avid reader, she shares her passion for Canadian history and literature through her reviews on Instagram @cb_reads_reviews. She has most recently been committed to writing and staging formally innovative single and multi-act plays.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.