Vicious bikers. The Irish mob. A family of squatters. A clever police detective. Death Count 26.
Some landscapes summon evil and once there, it lingers. Ragged Lake was a German POW camp during World War II, and then a mill town owned by O’Hearn Forest Products. Now, in its death throws, it’s transformed into something you don’t ever want to encounter, except perhaps in fiction.
Ron Corbett is a rare breed: journalist and poet. His detailed knowledge of war, of crime, of people and their nightmarish capabilities, fuses with a talent for sensory language and visceral description to lift the story off the page. Like a shotgun blast. This is a crime novel and something else—a genre called “rural noir”—a black day in the country and no picnic. Corbett writes in omniscient third-person mixing viewpoints to create a fast-paced, plot-driven, page-turner. The characters don’t change—there’s no time for that.
It begins with a triple murder. Special Forces soldier Guillaume Roy, his woman, Lucy Whiteduck, and their little girl, Cassandra, are murdered in the ramshackle cabin they built on the shore of Ragged Lake. They are squatters on O’Hearn land and keep to themselves as much as possible. Much of the backstory is revealed through the journal Lucy leaves with an old Cree woman three days before her murder: her not-so-idyllic childhood living in the Five Mile lumber camp run by O’Hearn, where her Cree father was foreman; her intimate connections with the Irish mob from Corktown; her therapy sessions; her relationship with Roy, and their escape into the wilderness. There, by the shore of Ragged Lake, for a moment, Lucy experiences peace: “Love. Work. Family. The fine high rise of that. Those were our days.”
Burley police detective, Frank Yakabuski comes to investigate the murders with two young Ident officers. Yakabuski discovers that the Popeyes are operating a giant methamphetamine lab in the defunct survival school. He figures the squatters found the lab and were executed by the bikers. Perhaps. But that, as the cliché goes, is only the tip of the exploding iceberg.
Ottawa author, Ron Corbett says: “If you’re a writer, whether fiction or non-fiction, unless you’re writing about a place that you’re familiar with and that’s important to you, I don’t know why you’re doing it.” Corbett has spent his life travelling and writing about the Ottawa Valley and Algonquin Highlands. Because he’s created a “fictionalized Northern Divide” all the time I was reading, I kept wondering where I was. Now I know. Ragged Lake lies on the southern border of Algonquin Park—one of my favourite places in the world. In 2000, Corbett camped there and wrote a newspaper feature based on his experiences. The author is most known for The Last Guide, his autobiography of Frank Kuiack, Algonquin Park’s last remaining fishing guide. In Ragged Lake, Corbett takes his experiences as a journalist and spins them into fiction.
Corbett is also well acquainted with war stories, having written First Soldiers Downabout Canada’s deployment to Afghanistan. Both Detective Yakabuski and Special Ops Guillaume Roy bear the grisly scars of war and military training. Sometimes it’s hard to read. Roy’s experience in Bosnia, for example, is almost too real.
Toronto publisher, ECW, uses the acronym “Extreme Cutting-Edge Writing” and that’s what you’ll find here. Grisly, raw, evocative fiction based on experience and a sense of place…and what a place.
As reviewed in the Ottawa Review of Books, December 2018