“I’ve finished Withdrawn from Circulation with great pleasure. As well as the characters, I relished the sense of the Ontario landscape, both lovely and unfriendly with its bug hats, sinister rednecks, and ‘halos of horseflies.’ It’s terrific, a sparkling novel with a light, dry wit that reminds me of Barbara Pym and Edmund Crispin at their best. Right up my alley.”
~ Ronald Wright, A Short History of Time
Not so much a whodunnit as a whogottit ...When the body of a local writer is found by the steps of the public library, police focus on the library staff. Senior librarian Greer McCallister is soon high on their list of persons of interest. Greer is an unlikely murder suspect, a quiet, dependable employee of almost twenty years. Recently, however,
her life has changed. Having at last found the courage to leave her overbearing husband, she is finding life as a single woman bewilderingly complex.
A precipitous affair shakes her sense of identity and ultimately her grip on reality. The investigating officer points out that many aspects of the case lead back to her, and she is terrified that she is in some way responsible for the tragedy.
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Maureen Garvie studied journalism and English at the University of Western Ontario and completed a master’s degree in English literature at Queen's University. She was a writer and editor for the Kingston Whig-Standard until 1994, and a regular reviewer for Quill & Quire from 1990 to 2010. She has taught academic writing at Queen's University and has been an editor for McGill-Queen's University Press for 20 years.
Kingston writer Maureen Garvie’s new novel is a murder mystery set in a library (photo Leila Garvie)
Garvie is well known to Kingston readers. She’s written three previous books, including two novels for young readers – Lake Rules and Amy by Any Other Name, and George Johnson’s War, which Quill & Quire called “an accomplished work of historical ‘faction.’ Maureen co-authored the book with Mary Beaty, the former head of children’s services at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library.
Maureen herself is a trained librarian. Born in Kingston, she has degrees in teaching and in library science. The novel is filled with insider library knowledge, not only the day-to-day routines but the way librarians think in terms of cataloguing experience, assigning categories and even possible Dewey Decimal designations. Maureen moved to New Zealand, where for 12 years she worked on various farms and in various libraries, returning to Kingston in 1983. She worked as an editor at the Whig-Standard for a time, when the paper was still owned by the Davies family, and now teaches writing and editing at Queen’s University.
Withdrawn from Circulation is her first adult novel.
“It’s a bit of a poseur as a mystery,” she says, by which she means that when she started writing it some years ago she didn’t think of it as a mystery at all. It was a novel about Greer McCallister, a 39-year-old librarian at the Canterbury Public Library in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Maureen worked while living abroad. (The setting has been changed to KFPL’s main branch.) Greer is undergoing a crisis in her life, not unlike the crises many 40-year-olds go through. She has left her husband of 20 years, is living alone and loving it, spending her evenings reading and thinking, wondering why she hadn’t made this break for freedom ages ago.
But then her life becomes tangled. She has an unsatisfactory love affair, gets tired of explaining her actions to her husband and her mother and her colleagues at the library. She has an unfortunate accident with her car. The novel becomes interestingly complex and real.
“But the thing never gelled,” Maureen says. “It never had enough gravitas.”
So the novel-in-progress languished, becoming “one of many manuscripts I’d been dragging around for decades.”
Then, in 2013, Maureen took the novel with her to the Sage Hill Writing Experience, the famous writers’ retreat in Saskatchewan’s luscious Qu’Appelle Valley, where she worked on the book under the tutelage of Kingston novelist Helen Humphreys. Helen told her the novel was “fine,” but suggested she try working on something new, “instead of dragging around corpses.”
Maybe it was the word “corpses” that gave Maureen the idea of turning the book into a mystery. “I’d been reading a constant stream of mysteries,” she says, and indeed, in the novel Greer is often curled up on her sofa with Inspector Morse or Agatha Christie, or watching Lewis on television. “And one day I thought, well, if I just killed off a character, that would give the novel some gravitas.”
There’s nothing like a dead body to give a novel gravitas.
“I spent an enjoyable period deciding who to kill, and then cut out about half of the old book, and the result is Withdrawn from Circulation.”
It is a highly believable murder mystery, with a satisfying number of plots and subplots, most of which involve Greer, and an amiable but persistent Sergeant Pereira, who traces an alarming number of the threads in the case to Greer. Her colleagues at the library are a motley crew of seasoned librarians with complicated private lives – two of them are writers in their spare time, and one is a widower with a shadowy past – and younger recruits whose lives outside the library are intriguingly inscrutable. The children’s librarian, a single mother named Bronwyn, is not modeled on Mary Beaty, Maureen acknowledges, but rather on the children’s librarian at the Canterbury Public Library in New Zealand, who “often stayed up late writing marvelous children’s books and caught up on her sleep the next day in the library stacks.”
Kingston readers will enjoy the local references. Librarians and the Kingston writing community seem to spend a lot of after-hours time in the Canoe Club at the Prince George Hotel. At Christmas, Greer attends a choral performance at St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral, a thinly disguised St. George’s. Some of the references will raise eyebrows. For example, when the body in question is found one morning in the parking lot of the Central Library, my first thought was that the parking lot at the Central Library isn’t big enough to hold a body.
Withdrawn from Circulation is a compelling mystery, but it is also a wonderful novel in its own right. The murder might tie all the threads together at the end, but it is a delight to just follow the intrigues with Greer’s mind. It’s the third book to be published by the small Kingston press Cowdy House, run by Christina Decarie and Darryl Berger, and where Maureen has worked as an editor. It’s being released as both a paperback and an ebook.
The library pun in the title will bring to mind a string of possible future sequels. Is it too much to suggest that this debut mystery from Maureen Garvie is long overdue?