Let’s face it! Iona Whishaw is a good writer – and has been so for nine mystery novels set in the Kootenays over the past few years. The narratives of her novels are easy to follow, and though her plots are often intricate, her language and characters are never obscure. Certainly, she keeps us guessing, but in the end we are always given the answers and end up satisfied as readers.
It’s important for readers who are coming to Iona Whishaw for the first time that her novels be read in order. That doesn’t mean each novel can’t be read for its specific experience. However, because Whishaw uses mainly the same few characters and develops them a bit more in each novel, it would be helpful to begin with A Killer in King’s Cove (2015). The novels in the series are numbered, but failing that, readers can work through the rest of the novels by checking the dates.
Whishaw’s latest book Framed in Fire (2022) once again features the precocious former spy from World War II, one Lane Winslow. And once again, she is at the centre of the intrigue. Her character is one imbued with innocence at one level and sharp perceptions at another. Always, she seems to be in the right spot when nefarious events occur or a body is located.
This time she has gone to the New Denver area to visit a Doukhobor friend, Peter Barisoff, and while waiting for him she meets Tom Simpson, a First-Nation individual who has ridden by horseback up from Colville to seek out the graves of his ancestors. When Barisoff shows up, he takes them for a tour of his garden where he explains an animal has been digging. When they look closely at the site, they discover a skeleton from a body buried not too deeply.
If you are a Whishaw reader, you know that’s all it takes for the story to develop on a number of levels. Soon Lane’s husband Inspector Darling and his Sergeant Ames from the Nelson police are involved in assessing what turns out to be a murder. Initially, Tom Simpson, who is looking for signs of his ancestors, doesn’t believe the body has anything to do with him. However, his uncle had disappeared many years before on a similar trip to the New Denver region. The plot thickens.
Winslow, however, is not content to develop only the Tom Simpson First Nation story. As good and thorough as the information is about the Lakes Indian people (better known as the Sinixt), which she conveys throughout the novel, she develops a secondary plot dealing with an Italian family in Nelson who operate a restaurant. Their home and their restaurant are targets for someone who wants to burn their places down.
The Nelson police investigate two deliberately set fires, which initially seem to have racial overtones. However, the narrative leads in a different direction, based as much on jealousy and human depravity as on overt racism. Whishaw’s title itself, Framed in Fire, has more to do with the sub-plot than it does with the discovery of the skeleton near New Denver and the subsequent revelation of the body’s identity.
The final sections of the novel illustrate how carefully Whishaw has been to get the Sinixt background and their current behaviour correct. We learn a lot about that culture at the same time as we learn about Tom Simpson’s story – a bit of Colville, a bit of New Denver, and a bit of Nelson.
All along, Lane Winslow has been involved in both plots, and her perceptions and curiosity often lead the police to the truths about events. It’s a joy following her along.