CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 16. . . .December 18, 2009
I have a real problem with "historical" fiction about someone I knew, or at least overlapped with me. "That's not history!" I say indignantly, "I was alive then!" And so was John Diefenbaker. However, Mystery of the Moonlight Murder is set a good bit farther back, in the early twentieth century, when Dief the Chief was a young lad on the Saskatchewan prairies. He never did witness the shooting of a neighbour by the light of the moon, but there's no reason why he couldn't have done so, and Roderick Benns has given a nice account of what might have happened if Dief had--how he would have reacted, what he would have felt, given the traits of character he exhibited in his later life.
More than one mention is made of Diefenbaker’s crinkly hair and piercing gaze, both features that I remember (though I might have said "pop-eyed" rather than "piercing"!). His loyalty to his friends and desire for justice for all, whether red, white, or black, German, Russian, Metis, or undifferentiated, comes through very strongly. The dramatic turn of a political meeting near the end of the book even gives young John his first chance to sway a crowd with the power of his oratory.
Does all this add up to a super book? Unfortunately, not really. The historical details are as authentic as Benns could make them, and an endnote lists sources for various events and even justifications for making people act as they do. All this is very interesting for those who want to know something about the times. The characters, however, including John himself, somehow don't come across as real people. John's mother is defined by her work ethic, though there is a characteristic tightening of her lips at the mention of alcohol that does bring somehow bring her to life. John's father and uncle are school teachers, again with not much depth to them, but useful in that they are always very keen to explain the historical background of present events.
Most of the actual plot revolves around John's attempts, with the help of his brother Elmer and their friend Summer Storm, to prove that Summer's father, River's Voice, had not killed the Diefenbakers’ neighbour. It is, therefore, the relationship between the three youngsters that is central to the novel, and it is not convincing. This would matter less if the plot, which is to say, the murder, added the suspense and drama to the action of the book. That it fails to do so is, in part, because of the device that lets the reader know that River's Voice, almost as soon as he has been arrested, was, in fact, not guilty. The man responsible for the shooting is not identified, but the reader has no doubts that he will be. In fact, in the conversation that we 'overhear' between him and the man he was working with/under, he comes across as so stupid that it is slightly surprising that he isn't uncovered sooner than he is!
All in all, the book is excellent history, but not a very good mystery.
Mary Thomas works in an elementary school library in Winnipeg, MB, and now knows more about the Red River Rebellion and the alienation of the West than she did before.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.