Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tell Me the Landscape by Lou Allin

Lou Allin is the author of the Belle Palmer mysteries set in Northern Ontario, ending with Memories are Murder. Now living on Vancouver Island with her border collies and mini-poodle, she is working on a new series where the rainforest meets the sea. On the Surface Die and She Felt No Pain feature RCMP Corporal, Holly Martin, in charge of a small detachment near Victoria. In 2010 Lou will debut That Dog Won’t Hunt, a novella in Orca’s Raven Reads editions for adults with literacy issues. Her website is and she may be reached at

Lou's work view is of Washington State across from the Strait of Juan de Fuca looking at Port Angeles

Tell Me the Landscape by Lou Allin

Northern Ontario and Canada’s Caribbean are as far apart in reputation as in distance, but they’ve been my home. Seven months of winter or of rain, I made peace with my environment by taking Ortega y Gassett’s advice: “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

The Nickel Capital of Sudbury, ravaged for a century by logging, mining, smelting, and acid rain, is no longer the black moonscape where astronauts supposedly trained. In the thirty years that I lived there, an immense regreening program turned the city into a model of environmentalism. Rye-on-the-rocks brought back the grass, and over twenty million pine seedlings were planted in an effort shared by community, business, and government.

Living on a vast meteor-crater lake north of the city, I was blessed with crown land in all directions. Not only could I forge for hours on my own paths with my dogs, but I could paddle a canoe to quiet inlets where bass bit and peregrines nested on high cliffs. The landscape called me to sing its praises. In a paradise of two hundred lakes, I gave my realtor sleuth Belle Palmer a specialty in cottage properties so that she could roam, too.

My first mystery, NORTHERN WINTERS ARE MURDER, opened with a snowmobile accident
and the cover picture of a hand frozen in a lake. Like me, Belle rode a modest 250 Bravo, VW of the snowmachine world. What better ending than a rip-roaring chase from jewel to jewel with the ice thawing at the edges? Winter freed us from summer’s limitations.

Switching seasons, BLACKFLIES ARE MURDER’s cover had a
pail spilling blueberries and suspicious blood dotting the bushes. The bear-baiting in the initial scene was taken from memory, an ursine smorgasbord of doughnuts tied into alders and lemon pies on rock shelves. Bug dope stained every page, and I have the memory welts to prove it.

The wilderness was ideal territory for dogs, and Belle lived with Freya, a hardy German shepherd. But what about sending a mini-poodle puppy into a blizzard? BUSH POODLES ARE MURDER featured an apricot devil whose paws had to be thawed from ice balls every ten minutes on the snowshoe path. Tiny Strudel (Friday in real life) became a mighty huntress of shrews. On the cover she posed proudly in her Anna Karenina cape.

The beauties of autumn presented a new challenge in MURDER, EH? The final chase scene ended at Thor Lake, faithful to topographical maps. Since each of my books featured a relevant recipe, luckily a deserted cabin had the ingredients for nutritious bannock. To add a macabre touch, the remote lake, accessible only by train, was the scene of a murder-suicide this year.

The final entry, MEMORIES ARE MURDER served up the fly-ridden Burwash area, former scene of an Ontario prison from which no man ever escaped. Elk had been relocated there in a pilot program a few years ago. Belle’s old high-school boyfriend, a zoologist, came north to study the animals and drowned mysteriously. In another life-imitates-art moment, just before the book appeared, hunters found the body of a missing woman very near the opening scene location.

Though evidence pointed to the husband and an accomplice, charges have not been laid.

After leaving behind my plow truck, two snowblowers, five shovels, and a scoop, I moved to Canada’s Caribbean, the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, where the rain forest meets the sea. Bananas and kiwis grow in my yard. Bugs flee the salt air. “Welcome to Paradise,” the realtors say, but they know that BC also means “Bring cash.”

The climate is mild, neither too hot nor too cold. The snow-capped Olympic Mountains in Washington State across the Strait of Juan de Fuca assume a life of their own as mist rolls in and foghorns moan. But gone is the wilderness. The timber companies have been raping the land for over a century, threatening job losses if challenged. They own the major portion of the island and prefer to log near the water where it’s more convenient. Only through world pressure was the treasured Clayoquot Sound saved from the saw. With the market for lumber floundering, their latest plan is to convert their leases to real estate and reap a million dollars an acre. Only sensible zoning can prevent that, and it’s going to be a hard fight.

In my new series, starting with AND ON THE SURFACE DIE, Holly Martin, RCMP corporal, commands a small detachment west of Victoria. She may not have blizzards, but the book ends with a century typhoon that hit as I arrived in 2006. There was no Christmas that year, only two five-day power outages as thousands of three-hundred-foot Douglas firs fell uprooted across power lines, crushing cars and houses. It’s a rough way to make the front page of The Globe and Mail, my neighbour said, her seven-acre waterfront estate of Sitka spruces now a war zone. Woodpiles will be stocked for years, but burning the debris (landfills are scarce on an island) filled the air with smoke January to June.

Learning about my new home has brought more guidebooks. Instead of blueberries, we have salmonberries, salal berries, and the toughest plant in the world, Himalayan blackberries. Tomatoes won’t grow on this windy coast, but artichokes thrive. Bald eagles soar, and western jays squawk. We still have bear aplenty, and deer, too, but elk have replaced moose. How odd that the island has no foxes, but small wonder that it has a rabbit overpopulation. No poisonous snakes, but poisonous salamanders. And an unusual gift, banana slugs, a helpful detrivore which scours the environment and has only one lung! Always present is the generous beast of the Pacific, bringer of crab, shrimp, salmon and “hali,” in this former fishing village, Sooke. With its intertidal zones, world-famous Botanical Beach sets the murder scene in AND ON THE SURFACE DIE. At low tide, the sea creatures emerge. Mussels, starfish, anemones, rock crabs, and the primitive chitons, especially the gum boot variety, huge pink erasers weighing several pounds.

As I was an ambassador for Sudbury, showing its beauties to the world, I’m now sounding warnings for this spectacular part of Canada. Vancouver Island stands on the brink of disaster not only because of the logging, but because so many people want to come and live here. Locals feel like “pulling up the drawbridge,” and perhaps the rising ferry fares will do that. It’s not just our whales that need saving from “development” and the attendant pollution. It’s the land itself. Will the green forces succeed or will we be paving paradise again?


Vicki Lane said...

That's the downside of living in paradise -- everybody else wants to move there too. Vancouver does sound heavenly.

Such an interesting post -- I'm eager to explore both your settings!

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Nice to see you here, Lou. I've read all your books and you do such a superb job of making us experience the setting - both Northern Ontario and the west coast. Anyone reading your blog today will pick up on that instantly. They're in for a treat - well, a series of treats.

~ Kirra ~ said...

I am intrigued of your post and writings so much so that I shall pop into my local library in order that I may read your books.

Every success.

jenny milchman said...

Lou, I agree with you about the importance of physical setting, and envy you both of yours!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Lou - I'm fascinated by all this. And, like Vicki, I'm now going to be quite eager to learn more.

and thank you, very much, for stopping by!

Lou Allin said...

Thanks to you all for your kind responses. Paradise is a bit drear in the winter, but I'm still glad to have left my plow truck, blowers, and seven shovels behind.

Unknown said...

Lou Alliln's exemplary books might serve as the texts for a course in Psychological Geography. Her impecabbly described settings -- Northern Ontario and Vancouver -- are important and entertaining characters in themselves.