1816 An ‘atmosphere of isolation and suspicion’
Wreck Bay: An Amanda Doucette Mystery
by Barbara Fradkin
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2023
$21.99 / 9781459743878
Reviewed by Bill Paul
Amanda Doucette has worked overseas as an aid worker and across Canada with men and women who have struggled, “battered by addiction.” She’s nearing forty and has a history of trauma. While organizing activities (such as nature hikes) for estranged fathers and sons in Vancouver Island’s Tofino, Amanda befriends Luke, a tormented, talented painter. Days later a man’s body is discovered at a beach on nearby Flores Island. Tofino RCMP consider Luke (aka, Lucas Jefferson Dalli) a suspect. This is the premise of Wreck Bay, Barbara Fradkin’s fifth mystery novel with Ms. Doucette, who’s “spent her life on the front lines helping those in need.”
There are solid reasons to enjoy the novel. For one, Fradkin has created two sympathetic main characters. Amanda is a born problem solver, a counsellor who empathizes easily with people from different backgrounds. An assertive and sympathetic observer, her instincts lead her to being in the right place at the right time. In the case of Luke, his backstory is important. He fought in the Vietnam War, deserted the U.S. Army in 1969, and left for Canada. He reinvented himself, made his way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, and found a safe haven squatting with other young people at the Wreck Bay hippie commune near Long Beach (now known as the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve). Amanda recognizes that Luke is fragile and has emotional problems. Can Luke, who looks like a “new-age Moses,” come to terms with his turbulent past?
The story revolves around the budding friendship between Amanda and Luke. In this scene, Amanda visits Luke at his isolated log cabin on Flores Island, hoping to find out more about his past by talking about his art:
Almost every inch of the wall space was covered by paintings, and more were stacked against the walls. Unlike the paintings in the shed these were mostly soothing: misty purple mountains, waves racing green and blue up the shore, jagged multicoloured rocks, boats, cabins, village scenes. They were fanciful colours and somewhat abstract, but they reflected loneliness, awe, occasional joy, not terror.
Amanda smiled. “This is your safe place.”
Luke was standing in the open doorway, watching her as she walked around the room. “Do you have one?” he asked.
An interesting supporting cast surrounds Amanda. A local man named Pim, who knows the wilderness well, acts as a guide and protector for her. Pim, a man who’s “comfortable with his own company,” is a member of the Ahousaht First Nations. Matthew “Tag” McTaggart is Amanda’s sometimes reliable and sometimes not so reliable co-worker, a tattooed middle-age man who spent time in prison. On the other side of the country in Newfoundland is Amanda’s boyfriend Chris. He works for the Deer Lake RCMP detachment, sees “dangers where others did not,” and stays in constant contact with Amanda.
As with previous Amanda Doucette novels, Fradkin places a troubled family at the centre of the story. In Wreck Bay, it’s Luke’s brother, Damon Vali and his two children, Richard and Dee Dee.
Built into the book’s narrative are Fradkin’s dramatic descriptions of weather and geography. Tofino is a “classic beach town … with fog rolling in off the sea,” a small coastal community “dotted with hotels, kayaking centres, surf shops, restaurants.” Everywhere, “motifs of the sea – fish, seashells, boats … intermingled with First Nations art.” Along the shorelines and forests near Tofino are looming mountains, unmarked trails choked by lush ferns and salal, dense forest and “towering stands of evergreens descending straight to the rocky shore.” Black clouds hang in the treetops. Fierce pelting rainstorms arrive unannounced. A stream swells to a torrent. Despite a plot that at times verges on overactive, Fradkin’s descriptive writing maintains the story’s atmosphere of isolation and suspicion.
Wreck Bay follows the conventional framework of the mystery format: a death occurs and sets in motion an investigation of what happened and why. With the help of locals, Amanda pieces together threads of information. Luke’s past crashes into his present. The story circles around a series of questions that keep the reader guessing. Does Amanda remind Luke of a young woman he once knew from his Wreck Bay commune days? Who else is nosing around and trying to find out information about the fire at the commune in 1971? And why have members of Luke’s family suddenly arrived from the United States eager to question him? Amanda helps Luke sort through the secrets and lies that have dogged him. Is there a family reckoning or possible reconciliation down the road? Are the Tofino RCMP going after the wrong man?
East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and non-fiction. Editor’s note: Bill Paul has also reviewed books by Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster