Can't help but wonder if Eric Wright was having fun with one or more of his colleagues when he wrote The Night the Gods Smiled. It was the first of his eleven-book Charlie Salter series of crime novels. And if Wright was parodying any of the other professors who taught English with him at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, Ontario, either deliberately or unconsciously, I might have become a tad jittery were I one of them. And, had I remained at Ryerson until Wright retired in 1989 after having published five more Charlie Salter novels, that jitteryness easily could have led to psychotic collapse and early retirement. Or I might have tried my hand writing my own novels, making fun of Wright and leading ultimately to a big-word duel segueing into bad words, face slapping, scratching, fisticuffs, biting, and finally to one of us lying dead on the floor.
Something like this evidently happened to Toronto English Prof. David Summers, whose head-bashed corpse was found on the floor in a Montreal hotel room. Summers and several other Douglas College English professors were in Montreal attending a conference.
Montreal police asked Toronto police for help, which they received in the person of Inspector Charlie Salter, whose career was on hold because he’d backed the wrong man for a major promotion. The man, who had been Salter’s mentor, retired soon thereafter, leaving his erstwhile protege at the mercy of a grudge-holding new superior. Consigned to a desk in a shabby little office, shuffling papers and running errands, with fifteen more years before he can retire, Salter’s spirits soar when his superiors, occupied with more important matters, dump the Montreal case on his desk. All he has to do is meet the detective from Montreal, Sgt. Henri O’Brien, when he arrives in Toronto. Can’t be that hard, he figures, but it’s a murder case. Nonetheless, their meeting is inauspicious. Their initial formal cordiality begins to break down when discussing the case, theorizing Summers might have been killed by a prostitute or a lover. O’Brien asks if English professors are known for fighting with their lovers. This is when things get snippy:
“What difference does it make what he teaches?”
“I meant English-Canadian professors, Inspector. Though, as a matter of fact, he did teach English.”
“I see.” Salter paused. O’Brien had introduced East/ West relations into the discussion. You Anglos are a mystery to us Québécois. “I guess professors are the same everywhere, Sergeant. Give them three drinks and they smash each other’s heads in.” Screw you, froggie, he thought.
Soon over the provincial sparring, they cooperate as professionals and are calling each other by their first names. O’Brien even hosts Salter for a couple of days in Montreal, taking him around to strip clubs the male professors were known to have visited the night Summers was killed. Back in Toronto, Salter focuses on the professors, one of whom is an attractive female and another who had been feuding with Summers for years, neither speaking to the other. No one seems to know what had estranged them, although it soon becomes clear the survivor, Prof. Dunkley, is an arrogant twit. We see the other two male professors and the department chair in an unflattering light, as well.
I could almost hear Eric Wright snickering, and maybe even guffawing, as he presented his colleagues in the guise of these comically flawed characters. Were that the case. Whether or not they represented real people, they came across as real to me, and I found myself snickering, too. And I actually guffawed at one point, so boisterously the wasp that had been flitting around my study the past two days fled in horror to the door and allowed me to escort him (her) back outdoors into the sunny day.
What I enjoyed most about The Night the Gods Smiled was the portrayal of Salter. He’s a likable guy (I almost said for a cop) despite the curves life’s been throwing at him. He soldiers on, doing his job with no chip on his shoulder. He has a stable home life--loving wife and two teenage sons. As a cop we get inside his head as he struggles to figure out who’s lying to him and why, and how to finesse the truth out of his cast of suspects. “Once again the hair prickled on [his] scalp as he felt [Marika Tils] withholding something,” we learn. “What’s going on, he wondered.”
His investigative tools include bluff and body language, although the only onstage violence is in his office between two of the suspects, fighting over the female professor. Talking to one of the males, he “stared hard” at him, “wishing he knew more about interrogation techniques.” I snickered at that, stifling a guffaw for fear perhaps a less timid wasp might emerge from behind my chair.
Another good, revealing line: “Salter felt as if he was on stage, playing the policeman to Pollock’s professor.”
Here he surprises himself, questioning a college administrator: “‘There could have been no brief fling in Montreal with one of his colleagues, perhaps?’ I don’t usually talk like this, thought Salter wonderingly.”
A college dropout, he even learns a few lines of poetry by Wordsworth and Keats to use while interviewing suspects. When someone asks him why he’s spending so much time interviewing people when it’s beginning to look as if O’Brien’s initial suspicion that the murder was committed by a prostitute or her pimp, or a mysterious lover, Salter says, I suspect with a straight face, “I’m trying to find out what kind of person he was, just in case we have one of those clever murders, complete with motive and everything.”
Did I say I like the guy, Salter? I do. Bitter Tea & Mystery’s Tracy K recommended the series to me, persuading me with her reviews. I always like to start a series at the beginning, but am limited sometimes because I read only ebooks these days. I could find only an omnibus of the first three Salter books in Kindle format. I am eager to read the other two, and might well go on to read the rest, assuming Salter’s professional situation picks up. A significant question: Will he still be on the wrong side of his boss, pushing paper and running errands, or did he please his masters with his handling of Prof. Summers’s demise? I view his situation optimistically, based on this evidence:
“Salter, the Old Man is happy,” a superior tells him. “Your pal in Montreal has written us a letter saying how great you are—brilliant, co-operative—all that kind of stuff. The Old Man is so happy he’s wondering if we can find a better spot for you, better than you’ve had for a year.”
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]