Archive for the ‘Wright, Eric’ Category

Death by Degrees by Eric Wright ~ 1993. This edition: Bantam/Seal (Doubleday), 1995. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2601-8. 192 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10. A minor effort by well-established Canadian “regional mystery” writer Wright. It has its moments, mostly in the personal narrative sections, and is mildly enjoyable for those already acquainted with Charlie Salter, but that’s about it. I doubt anyone coming to Eric Wright for the first time through this one would be strongly tempted to continue.


From Kirkus, August 1993:

Here, in an outing reminiscent of Final Cut (1991), Toronto Inspector Charlie Salter’s personal life is more absorbing than his caseload–which now includes the murder of moderately unlikable Maurice Lyall, a teacher at Bathurst Community College, and the alibis of various of Lyall’s colleagues on the Search Committee that had just nominated him for Dean of Related Studies. But the case keeps Charlie distracted from his major worry: the progress, or lack of it, that his father is making since suffering a stroke. Days spent listening to academic backbiting and nights spent in a hospital waiting room, peeking in on his dad between stints of writing up a case-in-progress journal, keep Charlie on edge, but a bit of luck narrows the suspect list–just as Charlie’s father’s health rebounds.

Minimalist plot, and few will care about the faculty and its infighting. As a father-son study, however, there’s much to recommend in Charlie’s guilt over not liking his dad, and his sensitive son Seth’s love and liking of both his father and grandfather.

That sums it up well.

This is the tenth installment in the eleven volume Charlie Salter mystery series by Wright, which started with 1984’s award-winning The Night the Gods Smiled. In Salter, Wright has created a flawed but ultimately good protagonist; Charlie’s dilemmas in both his personal and working life are immediately recognizable and relatable to the reader. I find I follow his personal progress through the books with much more interest than the mildly diverting mysteries trigger. A very human and very Canadian hero: conflicted, self-analyzing, often inarticulate, more than mildly cynical, and always polite.

I have never lived in Toronto, so I cannot speak as to the accurate depiction of this book’s setting, but it seems as though the city is as much a character as the humans. The story has its fair share of in-the-know references. Most are easily picked up on, especially if you’ve already read the earlier books in the series, but a non-Ontarian and especially a non-Canadian might well find himself occasionally lost and missing the subtle jokes which abound.

While I appreciated the hospital drama and Charlie’s emotional agony as he faced his father’s potential demise, I initially didn’t care for the lazy solution the author dumped on us. “Oh – he’s recovered surprisingly quickly. You can pick him up tomorrow.” Until I thought about it a little more deeply, and realized that this is indeed what can occur. It has happened to our own family. An elderly person quite literally at death’s door one day – “You should think about making some arrangements” – makes a rather sudden recovery, and without a “Sorry to have worried you so much” apology the dazed relations are informed that the almost-deceased is being released, and needs to be “out of the room by noon – someone else needs the bed.” Charlie’s reaction of confusion and resentment at the offhand attitude of some of the nursing staff, allied with relief at the prospective recovery, and worry about the next stage in the convalescence, now suddenly the family’s responsibility as the medicos turn away, perfectly reflects the real-life scenario we found ourselves in.

Eric Wright was an English professor at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto for many years, and he often saves his most satiric “insider” barbs for the educational establishment. I often get the impression that the writer is much more at home in the halls of academe than in the police station with his hero, and that he uses Charlie’s frequent naïvety as an opening to mount his personal hobby-horse and to expound on the ins and outs of the world of “higher education” to his “gee whiz” audience, in this case Salter and by extention the rest of us.

As mentioned above in the Kirkus review, the “mystery” in this mystery is the least of our concerns. The victim is unsympathetic; the murderer, when discovered, faces nothing particularly severe in the way of potential punishment. In general, life goes on.

In the real world, a violent murder such as the one described in this book would have much more traumatic consequences. I know it’s not the fashion for “cozy” murder mysteries to delve too deeply into the after-effects of the murder on everyone concerned, including the neighbours of the murdered man, who seem to view his brutal demise at the hands of what is suspected to be an opportunistic burglar with phlegm verging on cow-like stupidity. In real life, if your neighbour was randomly murdered in the night and if the culprit was still at large, lurking, one would assume, in the same neighbourhood, would you not be a gibbering mass of nerves? I think I would.

Ah well, it’s fiction.

Would I recommend this one? Only to those already interested in the series. Those new to Eric Wright, definitely start at the beginning with The Night the Gods Smiled, and follow along in order. In this case it pays to get to know Charlie Salter and his likeable and sometimes quirky family right from the beginning.

This is a mildly diverting series, for those times when you don’t want to feel too challenged. The violence is generally non-graphic, and though awful things happen we aren’t subjected to too many gruesome details. There’s a bit of sex here and there, often as part of the plot twist, and occasionally as “too much information” about Charlie’s personal life, but again, nothing too graphic. The author drops in a word like “penis” and then immediately shies back, as if in shock at his own temerity in discussing such things.

I keep a stack of Eric Wrights among the huge collection of mystery novels we’ve accumulated over the years, and have no plans on getting rid of them, though if they were to vanish I don’t think I’d be terribly heartbroken, as I would be if I lost my Josephine Tey and Dorothy L. Sayers collections – Wright isn’t anywhere in the same league, though he’s not at all bad reading if your expectations are adjusted suitably.

For those curious about more deeply investigating Eric Wright’s Charlie Salter, here are the books in the series in order of appearance:

  • The Night the Gods Smiled (1984)
  • Smoke Detector (1984)
  • Death in the Old Country (1985)
  • A Single Death (1986)
  • A Body Surrounded by Water (1987)
  • A Question of Murder (1988)
  • A Sensitive Case (1990)
  • Final Cut (1991)
  • A Fine Italian Hand (1992)
  • Death by Degrees (1993)
  • The Last Hand (2002)

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