Deaths by injection

A Patient Death
by John Farrow

Holstein, ON: Exile Editions, 2023
$32.95 / 9781550969856

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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I have been living under a rock. I just finished John Farrow’s tenth Émile Cinq-Mars murder mystery but had never heard of this nom de plume of Trevor Ferguson, who has published twenty-one books (including Lady Jail) to date. This prolonged ignorance has been my loss, for if A Patient Death is any example, I’ve been missing out on some first-rate reading over the years.

The novel comes absent the usual blurbs from other authors about how wonderful it is. Still, Wikipedia is not at all shy to tell us about Ferguson’s earlier successes; it lists Ferguson as a two-time winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

Now in his late seventies, Victoria-based Ferguson has been a writing machine since his youth. He’s garnered high praise from such literary luminaries as poet Dennis Lee and novelist Leon Rooke. Both salute him as a superior writer, Lee saying he is “one of the best in the language.”

The language is English, but Ferguson grew up in Montreal and his detective is the redoubtable Emile Cinq-Mars, also of Quebec origins—although in this novel he is contemplating a move to New Hampshire with his partner Sandra.

We meet Cinq-Mars as a retired detective of some celebrity. He has just solved a big case that has been well covered in the media, so he comes with publicized credentials as a sleuth of renown. His presence is noted when he assists the local police in solving a puzzling series of murders.

It takes a superior intellect like Cinq-Mars to unravel the deaths of several heroin addicts in both New Hampshire and Vermont, all the while tagging along with Sandra in search of a possible new residence. Interestingly the two searches, one for a murderer and the other for a house, coincide at some point in the story.

John Farrow (Trevor Ferguson) moved to Victoria from Montreal in 2019

Ferguson tackles the heroin addiction problem from an unusual angle in A Patient Death, introducing readers to “junkies” of a different breed. All of them rely on the powerful drug to help dull the pain of old age and other injuries. Bitz, Pen (for Penelope), and Muriel are all part of a secret group of pain sufferers. Not all of them will survive; some will murder to do so. 

The youngest of the group is Libby St. Croix, a 17-year-old addict on crutches who rides a bicycle. She will play a bigger part in solving the mystery of dead users who are found sitting up in their demise. In probably the most gruesome scene in the novel, Libby is subjected to torture at the hands of Joris Pul, a sadistic drug supplier. It is Libby that helps nurse Cinq-Mars back to life after he is hit by an assassin’s bullet and Libby who ultimately orchestrates the solving of the crimes.

That’s enough to whet appetites for this carefully crafted and socially conscious tale. You’ll have to meet real bad guys on your own. 

Is the author a match for contemporaries like Norway’s Jo Nesbo, Ireland’s Tara French, America’s Donna Leon, or Scotland’s Ian Rankin? For its high quality of dialogue, description, and sustained intrigue, they are playing in the same league. 

Of course, Cinq-Mars and Ferguson have had competition from another Quebec detective who has risen in the mystery literature ranks over the past many years. Louise Penny, now in her mid-sixties, created the memorable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Two Pines, Quebec. The two are rivals for the prize as gentlest and most likeable police detective.  

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. His latest article for BCR was “When Hollywood Calls,” an essay. He’s reviewed books by Andrea Warner, Barry Gough, Elaine Ávila, Ken McGoogan, Mostafa Henaway, Kennedy Stewart, Henry Tsang, and Robert Lower for BCR; he also contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy.

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), 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.

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