1938 Boys coming of age (in a compact murder mystery)

The Watchers’ Club: A Novel of Innocence and Guilt
by G. Kim Blank

Sante Fe: Sunstone Press, 2023
$36.00 / 9781632935304

Reviewed by Bill Engleson




My opportunity to review G. Kim Blank’s first novel, The Watchers’ Club, came about rather serendipitously. A mutual friend sent me a link to a recent Victoria Times-Colonist article about Blank’s novel and how it came into being. A specific mention of one of two items in a box of memorabilia given to the author by his mother years earlier hooked me: “Second, one newspaper clipping gave me serious pause—an account of a chilling moment completely forgotten: the double murder of two teenagers at their local lovers’ lane.”

Shortly after reading the article, and a smidgin of email writing/google searching, I noticed that the book had not yet been reviewed by the BC Review and ingenuously advised an editor about its publication.

Modestly brief, slightly resourceful story even shorter, I agreed to review it.




Out of the gate, in his author’s preface, Blank assigns a measurement to his novel: “One third of this novel is true; one third is not true; and one third is somewhere in-between.”

This is a handy gauge for fiction writers. And, in my experience, close to accurate. Still, it is left up to the reader to parse the portions, though in fiction, that might not be all that necessary.

It may also be a measurement for memory. 

But that’s a different story. 

Author G. Kim Blank

Early on, as Blank sets the stage to unfold his true/not true/somewhere in-between narrative, he hovers precariously and somewhat punishingly (emphasis on pun) when he describes “a new big pulp mill Sawmac” that gave a strong boost to the local economy yet extracted a noxious price because “when the wind was right, you could get a sulphurous whiff of the prosperity that poured out of the huge mill twenty-four hours a day…”

I am in uncharted review territory. Almost sixty years after leaving Nanaimo, or Silverford City as it is rechristened in The Watchers’ Club, I can still smell the effusion from Harmac, the real-life name for Sawmac. The name change no doubt is mostly an example of the novel’s one-third truth telling. There are of course moments when I wonder which is which. For example, throughout the novel there is a gloss of American television crime. This is most evident in the existence of the Sheriff and his deputies. Yes, British Columbia has had its share of Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs since the 1850s. Our Sheriffs historically (and currently) have provided a more court and prison-based service as well as, so Wikipedia says, posses, in their early days. Regardless, Sheriffs are considered part of law enforcement, though perhaps more aligned with order than with the law. 

B.C. has also had police services of the same vintage. In 1950, however, the BC Provincial Police Service was disbanded, and policing became (and remains) for the most part the purview of the RCMP, except in those communities, Vancouver being one of several, which have their own police service. This long-winded explanation is only meant to note that the author opted to give his novel sheriffs and deputies, hence a more American motif than perhaps was necessary.




With that possibly unnecessary detour out of the way, The Watchers’ Club largely revolves around the narrator, an early teen male, nameless, and his pack of buddies. They are a brusque bunch and spend perhaps too much time hurling juvenile epithets at each other. Being pre-adolescent buddies, they are both unique and stereotypical. You might likely have seen or read about them, versions of them, in numerous earlier coming of age books and films the likes of Lord of the Flies (which Blank mentions in in his preface), To Kill a Mockingbird, Stand by Me, and a classic about contrarian adolescents that makes an appearance in this novel, almost becoming a character, and certainly a thorny moral compass: Tom Sawyer. 

The Watchers’ Club, though it tells its own original tale, has elements of those four works of art and likely numerous others.

This comparison is my version of high praise. And as occurs in those vaunted works, there is considerable badinage. Early in, much of it is focused on the neighbourhood where the youngster’s flit and frolic, on the personalities who live there, the lives of each of these boys, their parents, friends, and foes. And there is of course, the raison d’etre of The Watchers’ Club―bird-dogging the hapless habitués of the local lovers’ lane.

Some of the banter, I confess, does get fatiguing, as if the reader is an innocent adult ensnared in a pre-adolescent boy’s body, duty-bound to suffer unmerciful kibbitzing with the best or the worst of their ilk in a surreal rite of passage. An illustration:


“Hey, the Dodgers are the best team ever, and if they don’t win this year, I’ll eat snot for a week.”

I felt that I should at least argue with Julian. “You already do. They’re not that great, you know.”

“Yeah. Just wait.”

“No, you wait.”

“Wanna bet?”

“I don’t bet with suckers. I buy them at the store.”




I trust I’ve made my case.

As The Watchers’ Club moves towards its denouement, as the perplexing depth of the crime at the novel’s heart is gradually revealed to the narrator, to the reader, as the law closes in on its preferred suspect, the onion (I apologize for resorting to this classic cliché) of lies, deceptions, obfuscations, and duplicities so thoroughly adopted by the Club members unravels. 

In what this reviewer believes is the most intensely rendered section of the novel, the twelve-year-old narrator is grilled—fricasseedby a skilled deputy sheriff. The dozen or so pages that capture the questioning and the answering cause the fated narrator to declare mid-point: “I was now in deep. Real deep. A path where words began to leave my body behind, like I didn’t own them anymore.”




All novels end. There is a preliminary hearing and subsequent outfall that consumes much of the final quarter of the book. All very Earl Stanley Gardnerish. Attorneys thrusting and parrying. Then, at one point, the Prosecutor references two precedents to make a pungent legal point: The People versus Phipps and the People versus Ingram. 

For any reader familiar with the facts of the original murder that spawned The Watchers’ Club, the truth cat (and have I mentioned that cats ― a nod of the hat to Mark Twain, perhaps ― not to mention rabbits, feature significantly in various facets of the novel?) is definitely out of the bag. I’ll leave it to readers of this review to pursue that reveal if they are unfamiliar with the source material. Suffice it to say, I do wonder why those particular names were added to the novel. On the other hand, in my recent novel, I borrowed the last name of my Ophthalmologist and gave it to a character. 

Not quite the same thing of course.

Not only do all novels end, so do all reviews. The Watchers’ Club offers an absorbing look into a small semi-rural community of children and their families and how they, and, to some extent, the larger society around them, cope with a previously unimaginable tragic event, an event that raises the question Kim Blank might have intended when he added “A Novel of Innocence and Guilt” as a subtitle. I believe most readers of this compact mystery will be pondering their own notions of innocence and guilt for quite a while. 


Alas, Two Quibbles—


Early in the book we are told that the slogan on the van belonging to Slagmann the butcher (a vehicle that plays a significant role in the story) is, You Can’t Beat Our Meat.” The narrator reports that Simon, his older brother “used to laugh at that one … though as usual, we didn’t know what he found so funny.” While it is possible most of The Watchers’ Club were abysmally unworldly, Arnold, the brains of the crew, is likely not. Surely, he would have comprehended the colloquial clarification of the slogan and explained Simon’s meaty guffaw. 

Also, given my own penchant for typos and edit oversights, I am hardly one to speak. However, there are several moments in the novel where words that should be there are noticeably absent. These grammatical potholes did cause this reader to stumble here and there ever so briefly. As there is a prequel in the works, I hope a copyeditor/proofreader will give it a thorough viewing. 


Two Final Plaudits— 


The publisher or the author (or both) have provided a handy Readers Guide at the end. Very thoughtful. Very wise. And much appreciated.

And lastly, I have to admit that I very much enjoyed Arnold and his cinematic or literary bon mots. For instance, early on, when a flashlight shines on the barely tolerated outsider in the group, Jacob Slough, Arnold comments, “It’s just Gumboot―or Boo Radley.”  

A few pages later, as the ragtag prowlers begin their lovers’ lane blitz, Arnold whispers to his cohorts, “Time to close in for the kill. Move up, fan out. Run silent, run deep.” Putting aside notions of inadvertent foreshadowing that one might care to draw, the author is clearly enjoying tittering, or teetering, into the realm of moviedom. 

Incidentally, though I usually avoid submarine movies these days, I remember watching the Clark Gable/Burt Lancaster submariner epic, Run Silent, Run Deep, back in 1958 at the Capital Theatre in Nanaimo. I’d like to think Arnold, or his doppelgänger, might have been in the audience.




Bill Engleson

Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. He was born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, and spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fish boat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in his mid-teens in the, now, sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home in 2013. Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays titled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul, in October 2016. Visit his website-blog here. [Editor’s note: Bill Engleson has reviewed books by Hugh Greer, Daniel Wood, Luke WhittallJG ToewsJack Knox (Opportunity Knox), Jack Knox (Hard Knox), and Mike McCardell for BCR. He has also contributed an essay on the Dora Drinkwater Library on Denman Island. Theo Dombrowski reviewed Engleson’s recent sophomore novel, The Life of Gronsky.]



The British Columb
ia 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 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.

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