A few days ago, January 2011, I was browsing through a list of Daishel Hammett Award winners and was surprised to find Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Her novel The Blind Assassin won the award for best North American crime novel in 2000. I’d not read the book, so I located it on Kindle and downloaded it to my iPod. I was soon immersed in the text, it’s one of those hard-to-put-down novels.
Margaret Atwood’s crime novel opens on December 18, 1945, just 10 days after the end of World War II in Europe, Laura, the 25-year-old sister of Iris Chase Griffin drove a pre-war Bentley Automobile off the end of a bridge and fell to her death in a small port town in Eastern Canada. Her sister describes the fall:
[S]he went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
The story continues with an excerpt from a Toronto paper: Laura Chase dies from an automobile accident apparently caused by the faulty state of the railroad tracks leading onto the closed bridge. The sudden fiery death of Laura Chase turns out to be nothing but an unfortunate accident.
Following Laura’s accident, Iris, her sister, focused all her energy towards the publication of Laura’s short novel: The Blind Assassin, which was received by a scandalized town, morbidly curious nation and investigative reporters all of whom wanting to know if the “fictional” characters of the story had real-life counterparts. Apparently they did and there were repercussions; two years after Laura’s death and shortly after publication of the novel, Laura’s brother-in-law is found dead in his sailboat. The Toronto paper reports this death as a probable coronary—what an unlucky family.
But wait, Atwood has inserted another clipping: fast forward to 1975, the Toronto Star reports the accidental death of Aimée Chase, daughter of Laura Chase, the deceased author. Aimée is survived her daughter Sabrina and by her mother Iris, and, strangely enough, the custody of the child is awarded to Winifred Griffin who is the sister of Iris’s deceased husband. What is going on? This family warrants further scrutiny.
All the elements are in place for a whodunit of memorial proportions, but author Atwood brings us back to the now much older Iris who is going to narrate the true story of her family. This will require her going back to Iris’s grandparents which is where the problems began; all 5 generations of the Chase family will play roles in this engrossing saga of ambition, wealth, deceit and violence that ends with the death of Iris by natural causes at age 83. She bequeathed her story to Aimée, the granddaughter she didn’t know.
If this is a crime novel, it is without criminals, detectives or easily categorized crimes. I’ve never thought of Margaret Atwood as an author of crime fiction and even considering the liberal definition used by the North American Dashiel Hammett Society it is a stretch to classify this novel as the best crime novel of 2000. But, it is a good story—an epic chronicle spanning two world wars and more that 100 years of history—told is an innovative way.
Day 20: The Blind Assassin by (Margaret Atwood) (2000, Hammett Prize for Crime Fiction).