AN ACT OF INJUSTICE
A mystery novel out of the 1880s
Wayne Grady, Kingston Whig-Standard
April 30, 2017
KINGSTON, Ont. – In 1885, Kingston writer Grant Allen wrote a short story, “Jerry Stokes,” that was a thinly disguised argument against capital punishment.
In the story, Stokes is the hangman in Kingston who refuses to hang a convicted murderer because he, Stokes, is unconvinced of the man’s guilt. He delays the execution long enough for evidence of the man’s innocence to come to light. Although he is proud of his unusual act of rebellion, Stokes wonders just how many of the men and women he had “turned off” in his long career as “a practical philanthropist” have also been innocent.
No such qualms disturb the slumber of the hangman in Ray Argyle’s novel An Act of Injustice. Cook Teets, accused of murdering his wife, Rosannah Leppard, is dutifully hanged. The only one in the crowd that witnessed the hanging, which takes place on Dec. 5, 1884, to question Teets’ guilt is the somewhat jaded newspaperman Leonard Babington, who spends the rest of the novel trying to determine who it was who poisoned Rosannah.
Both Teets and Rosannah are based on actual people who lived near Owen Sound, in what was then known as the Queen’s Bush, in the 1880s. Ray came across their story while researching a magazine article for The Beaver magazine (now called Canada’s History). The article was about wrongful hangings.
“I found there’d been quite a few,” Ray says, which may explain why Grant Allen’s story appeared the following year. Few public executioners, who were paid per topping, were as conscientious as Jerry Stokes.
“Cook Teets,” says Ray, “was so obviously a victim of injustice that I ached to tell his story.”
An Act of Injustice is a mystery novel, with Leonard Babington standing in as the detective, and so I’m not going to give away the plot. But I will say that, at the Prince Edward County Authors Festival held in Picton last week, I heard Joy Fielding talking about the difficulties of writing mysteries.
“You have to keep up the suspense,” she said. “Every scene has to ratchet up the tension another notch. You want to write a book that readers find hard to put down.”
Argyle has heeded that advice, and the result is a wonderfully suspenseful mystery.
“I think the key to a good mystery,” he says, “is the tension. You have to keep it at a high level.”
In a way, the Teets case is a perfect one for a novelist, because so little is known about it, which leaves plenty of room for the imagination.
“There is little in the historical record about Rosannah and Cook,” says Ray, “beyond what is contained in the transcript of his trial, which I obtained from the archives in Ottawa. It gives just the skeleton of their lives. I turned to fiction to add flesh to the bones, imagining the lives they led, bringing in fictional characters as well as historical figures.”
Which is not to say the novel didn’t require research.
“Because the novel is based on a true story,” says Ray, “it required a tremendous amount of research. I not only had to find out everything I could about the case, but I also had to learn about life in Victorian Canada.”
After coming across the account of the trial in his reading for the Beaver article, Ray spent seven years fleshing out the bones.
“I talked to judges, lawyers, doctors, politicians and jail guards, read a lot of old newspaper files, and quite a few books.”
He even managed to track down a great-grandniece of Rosannah, who is living in British Columbia.
“She shared family intimacies with me,” he says, “that enabled me to present an authentic picture of their lives.”
All of this is par for the course for any work that takes place in the past, whether fiction or nonfiction. The writer has to get the details right without making the book sound like a history text.
In this novel, Ray switches points of view often, from that of Rosannah to that of Leonard, from the police constable who arrests Teets to the judge who sentences him to hang, but never assumes the role of omniscient observer who feels obliged to explain what the Underground Railway was, or how a sawmill works, or how political parties functioned in Victorian Ontario. All such information is embedded in the story.
“Research,” he says, “is the fun part of writing. But if you’ve done your research properly, writing comes easily.”
Ray’s earlier books have all been nonfiction. They include The Boy in the Picture, about the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and most recently The Paris Game: Charles de Gaulle and the Gamble That Won France. He has long been interested in history (he is a member of the Grey County Historical Society, which is where the Queen’s Bush was located in the 1880s).
In a recent blog, he quotes Anthony Doerr, the author of All the Light We Cannot See, which deals with the Second World War (and also contains a main character who is blind), who notes that “We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is a memory every day. In another decade, there will be very very few people left who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.”
In this year, which marks Canada’s 150th anniversary, the importance of history is even more acute than usual: it is not only necessary to remember what happened in the past, but it is vital that we remember it accurately. That we ensure that our historical knowledge does not become “malleable.” “A people without memories,” Ray writes, quoting Marshall Ferdinand Foch, “is a people without a future.”
THE PARIS GAME — “Larger than Life — Reads like a novel”
The Paris Game:
Charles de Gaulle, the Liberation of Paris and
the Gamble that Won France
Dundurn, 485 pages
Literary Review of Canada
By Daniel Stoffman
It is normal in the English-speaking world to describe General Charles de Gaulle in negative terms. Arrogant, vain, ungrateful and dictatorial are some of the epithets used to describe the obscure French Army officer who in
1940 refused to accept defeat and, after helping the Allies crush Germany, went on to become president of France and founder of the Fifth Republic.
Ray Argyle has written Canadian historical novels and biographies, including one on Joey Smallwood. Argyle is also a francophile fascinated by the most celebrated Frenchman of the 20th century. He knows de Gaulle was not easy to get
along with. But, he writes in The Paris Game: Charles de Gaulle, the Liberation of Paris and the Gamble that Won France, excessive focus on de Gaulle’s personality has obscured our view of the person. We remember his vanity and arrogance and forget “his significance as a transformative figure of
the twentieth century.”
One of Argyle’s themes is the occupation of Paris and its liberation. Argyle compares the manoeuvring over the fate of Paris to the “great game” between Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia in the 19th century, hence the book’s title. (The term “great game” was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim.) But the title is misleading because the book’s focus is wider than
Paris. It is the story of France’s role in World War Two told from de Gaulle’s point of view. It tells how de Gaulle, with breathtaking self-assurance,
declared France undefeated although the whole world knew otherwise, and declared himself its leader although he had never held elected office
and was unknown to most of the French. The story continues after the war with accounts of de Gaulle’s adventures in French politics, Algeria and Quebec.
Argyle concludes that de Gaulle was right on the biggest issues—continuing the fight against Nazi Germany, decolonizing overseas territories and creating the Fifth Republic that brought stability to French governance. De Gaulle was also right during the war when he predicted that Hitler would attack Russia and he was right when he warned President John F. Kennedy not to get the United
States entangled in Vietnam.
That de Gaulle survived to die of natural causes in 1970 is remarkable given the 18 attempts on his life by right-wing military elements opposed to
Algerian independence. In 1962, he and Yvonne were in the back seat of their car when they were the targets of an assassination plot organized by the
Secret Army Organization, a group of dissident officers. A dozen men armed with automatic rifles fired 200 bullets at them. Only 14 bullets entered the
vehicle and none of them touched the occupants. “These people shoot like pigs,” de Gaulle observed. It is tempting to say that Ray Argyle’s well researched,fascinating book reads like a novel, but that would be wrong. No novelist could invent such a protagonist.
(For full review, See Literary Review of Canada, March 2015.)
By Zeb Kantrowitz
Ray Argyle is a Canadian journalist who has written books that mostly deal with Canadian history. Though and avowed Francophile, this is his first book on France. This is best described as a ‘political’ biography of Charles de Gaulle. Though de Gaulle is presented with his ‘foibles’, they are always modified by the author as being part of a ‘strongman’s’ personality. Roosevelt described de Gaulle as having a “Joan of Arc complex” which Argyle dismisses as ‘political hyperbole’.
The best description of de Gaulle (given by Argyle) is that he was “a man of honor” with a reputation for “arrogance, vanity, self-absorption”. But he had and an ego that hardly fit into France, and never conceded that France was not a major power after World War One. For all of his elegant talk of France and the ‘Empire’ during WW2, France had fallen to the German’s in a few months, and only money from the US made it possible for France to participate in its’ liberation.
De Gaulle who was born in 1890, was inculcated with the idea of “Le Grand France” that survived defeat by Prussia in 1870. He was a ‘good’ Catholic and lived his life that way. But he was a child of the “Belle Epoque” and his provincial ways never changed. He steered his life to be a military one and served under Marshall Petain in WW One. After the war he wrote books on strategy and claimed that the German Blitzkrieg was based on his writings.
But the same Generals who almost lost WW One were still in charge at the beginning of WW Two and did little to protect against a resurgent Germany. The arrogance of the French military establishment, hiding behind the Maginot Line is what cost France in the end. How could you not protect against an attack through Belgium when that’s exactly what almost won WW One? With concord with Belgium they could have extended the Maginot Line up to the Dutch border, and built a smaller line along the Belgian-French border line.
Even though the Germans were rolling up the BEF and French Armies through Belgium and pinning them into Dunkirk, the French Army had begun to reorganize and to give the Germans a battle. But the politicians declared Paris a ‘free city’ and took off for Tours and the Bordeaux. Marshall Petain was recalled from retirement and immediately asked the Germans for an Armistice. It has been discussed that Petain respected Hitler and hoped to work with him to fight the communists. By looking at the Italians, he should have understood that the Nazis didn’t play well or fair with others.
De Gaulle’s speech to the French nation on June 18th 1940, spoke to his nation of its’ historical honor and place in the world, calling on all Frenchman to fight against the Vichy government and the German occupation. This speech is on the level of the ‘Gettysburg Address’ or Churchill’s “Finest Hour” and should be respected as such.
But de Gaulle never seemed to understand that the Allies (the United Nations) wasn’t established just to liberate France. For de Gaulle that was the main goal, while for the US and UK the destruction of Germany (so they couldn’t start another war) was the end game. De Gaulle would speak of the sacrifice of the French, but in many ways thought himself above Eisenhower and Montgomery. Many times he refused the dictates of SHAEF (Supreme Allied General Staff) and did what he thought was best for France.
That was all well and good, but his French Second Armored Army under General LeClerc, that liberated Paris, was using Sherman tanks, wearing American made uniforms and firing American paid for munitions. He made sure that the Fighting French paraded through Paris first and on their own.
(Always a sore point with my dad who was with Patton’s Army, which liberated the area south of Paris and then chased out the remaining Germans.) A sore point for many American service men was that de Gaulle never made a point of thanking the US for all the men and treasury they spent to free France.
De Gaulle considered the ‘summits’ of the Big Three (US, UK and Soviet Union) to be an affront to French honor. Well I say if you want honor, you don’t give up your capital with a fight and then ask for an Armistice and then complain that it was ‘unfair’. The Poles, Dutch and Belgians put up a much sterner fight.
After the war, de Gaulle tried to steer France into a better place than had been the Third Republic, but was outmaneuvered by the politicians. He went into internal ‘exile’ waiting for everything to fall apart. It took twelve years but it did happen (helped on by the Battle of Algeria) and he was able to create a strong executive for the new Fifth Republic in 1960. He gave Algeria independence (the French were losing the war big time) but only after a referendum, which was a forgone conclusion. He created a ‘nanny state’ that did amazingly well for ten years after which a lot went to pot.
De Gaulle was able to create a ‘French Miracle’ by nationalizing many industries and the banking sector. But ten years on it all came crashing down under inflation and the lack of investment into these nationalized industries. The ‘social security’ system of government was underfunded and couldn’t handle the retirement of the ‘Greatest Generation’. De Gaulle, like Churchill was forced out in the end. He died soon after.
In France he has become a legend (no more nor less the Washington or Lincoln) as “Le Grand Charles”. He deserves to stand along with Roosevelt and Churchill and even Stalin in having caused the demise of the Nazis, but his memory will always be tarnished by his patronizing attitude to the French colonies and to his WW Two Allies.
JOEY SMALLWOOD: SCHEMER AND DREAMER
At last a biography of a political figure where the author is not so in love with his subject that a balanced view cannot be achieved. Negative opinions by other authors are frequently acknowledged. Argyle’s handling of this subject is an easy read – flows well as you would expect from a former public relations firm owner, but one wishes it could be longer. It is one of the Quest series of biographies of influential Canadians. A technique that makes the Smallwood book read so easily is the arrangement, not chronologically, but by theme. Hence a chapter on the Confederation campaign by which Smallwood led Newfoundland into the Canadian confederation in 1949, another chapter on economic development schemes, many of which are controversial to say the least, and others on private life, politics and legacy.
The details of the man’s life paint a picture of a very determined but different person. At only 5 foot four he was a pile of energy. At one point he walked clear across Newfoundland on the railway tracks to sign up the railway section workers in a new union. His early years in New York and his involvemnet in socialist ideas are filled with human interest in his relations with the young people he met there. Going back home he pragmatically shifted more to the center. Then with fame as a radio broadcaster featuring stories about everyday Newfoundlanders he went on to success in politics. In later life when asked what the biggest change was in Newfoundland from Confederation, Smallwood answered, “The chidren. After Confederation you never again saw a child with no clothes – no children wearing rubber boots with no socks or clothes made out of sacks.” Canada and Newfoundland would be much different if it had not been for Joey Smallwood.
THE BOY IN THE PICTURE: Edward Mallandaine and the Driving of the Last Spike
The Globe and Mail
By Neil Reynolds
Boys used to quit school honourably — either to find work as an apprentice and learn a profession by doing it, or to seek adventure, fortune and fame. Remarkably, these boys often achieved notable things. Kingston author Ray Argyle tells the compelling story of one such lad in The Boy in the Picture; The Cragellachie Kid and the Driving of the Last Spike. This is the story of Edward Mallandaine, the boy who stood behind CPR financier Donald Smith as tghe great man drove in the last spike — on Nov. 7, 1885 — of the legendary railway that joined Canada from coast to cast.
Mr. Argyle tells this Boys Own tale superbly. But then he lived a Tom Sawyer life himself, quitting school at 16 and roaming the country.
(For full review, see The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2010)
It is, admittedly, a book aimed at younger readers, but don’t let that sway you. It is still highly readable, and it will help to shed new light on the construction of the railway 125 years ago.
Edward Mallandaine was there! To prove it he thrust himself into the historic photograph of the “Last Spike” being driven to mark the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Surrounded by the railway dignitaries of the time, his young face peers out amid their frosty beards.
Edward had just turned eighteen when he left his home in Victoria, British Columbia, to join the Canadian militia to fight Louis Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Hired to ride dispatches over the unfinished stretch of railway in British Columbia, he meets highway men, high officials, men of the North-West Mounted Police, and the denizens of saloons hidden away in mountain passes. He survives the lawlessness of remote towns and railway camps, rubs shoulders with Chinese labourers struggling to blast a right-of-way through the towering peaks of Eagle Pass, and makes a freezing midnight ride by railway flatcar to reach the outpost of Craigellachie just in time.
TURNING POINTS: The Campaigns that Changed Canada
Barry Francis, Amazon Review
Who says history has to be dry and boring – certainly not Ray Argyle whose new book “Turning Points – The Campaigns That Changed Canada” is as compelling and interesting as any Grisham novel. What do the New Brunswick election of 1866, the Quebec referendum of 1995, and the Federal elections of 1917, 1957, 1968 and 1988 have in common? According to first-time author Argyle, they are milestone political campaigns and pivotal turning points that helped shape Canadian history. Argyle connects the dots to create a clear narrative that enables the reader to appreciate and understand the forces, personalities and events that shaped the Canada we know today. It’s a great read which illuminates the rich tapestry of Canadian history.