REVIEW: Former Creston resident Deryn Collier’s new novel won’t be a secret for long

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The cover of Deryn Collier's second novel.

The cover of Deryn Collier's second novel.

With the release of Confined Space two years ago, friends and acquaintances of Deryn Collier were excited to learn she had a reputable publisher (Simon & Shuster Canada) and that it received good reviews across the country. We were determined to like the book even before we opened it up. Collier, after all, was one of us. She had worked at several local jobs, was a familiar fixture at Kingfisher Used Books and she and her schoolteacher husband, Ron Sherman, were raising their kids here.

It didn’t hurt that Confined Space, set in the fictional town of Kootenay Landing, had an air of familiarity, much of the story taking place in a brewery and all. We could pick out landmarks and neighbourhoods, maybe even put an unintentionally familiar face to one of the crime fiction novel’s characters.

Now, with the release of her second in a series, Open Secret, Collier doesn’t get the same slack. She lives in Nelson, where Sherman is a school principal, and she only returns to Creston occasionally. Kootenay Landing still seems familiar, but it now has a bit of a Queen City feel to it, too.

Luckily for Collier and her readers, she doesn’t need to be cut any slack. From the first page, Collier demonstrates the confidence of a writer who has found her stride. With sure-footed, long and confident steps, she speed-walks right through a sophisticated series of plotlines. Invigorated readers keep pace, absorbing energy from their fit and energetic muse, taking only the shortest of breaks to catch their breath before springing along though the next twists and turns.

Open Secret picks up the story of coroner Bern Fortin, a retired career army man who has chosen Kootenay Landing for its remoteness to his past. Scarred and damaged by his experiences in far away war-torn countries, Fortin wants nothing more than to forget, but his past isn’t one that offers escape.

Only weeks after wrapping up his first mystery in Kootenay Landing, Fortin is once again drawn into the dark side of small-town life as a series of seemingly unrelated incidents begin to merge into a complicated whole that revolves around the illegal drug culture. Collier neatly makes the connection between the innocent use of marijuana in natural health remedies and the infiltration of organized crime into a largely unaware rural community.

The North American “war on drugs” is rightfully controversial. It’s been a spectacularly unsuccessful effort and that keeping so-called soft drugs like marijuana illegal chews up resources and starves governments of tax money. But there is no getting away from the fact that organized crime now controls much of the drug trade, including marijuana — right here in Creston we have had murders that tie to the business. Like it or not, there are no easy answers to the problem we have created, a premise that Collier explores without ever getting political about it.

Along the way, readers of Open Secret are introduced to new characters and get to better know others that were introduced in Confined Space. They are invariably compelling as the author breathes life into her supporting players as well as those in lead roles.

I finished Open Secret within 48 hours of receiving my advance copy from the publisher. And despite Collier’s admonition as we chatted by email — “Whoa! Slow down! It took me two years to write that book!” — I never felt like I was rushing. Quite simply, I got caught up in the story in the first pages and I didn’t want to put it down. I did force myself to slow down for the last quarter of the 427-page novel, though, trying to stretch the enjoyment out a little longer. Crime fiction is one of my favourite genres. And, if I didn’t know Collier at all, after reading Confined Space and Open Secret, she would still be among my favourite authors. She is that good. End of story.

Deryn Collier will be at Black Bear Books on April 16, signing copies of Open Secret from 2-4 p.m., with a book launch to follow at 7.