How many mysteries do you know of that are set in Canada’s easternmost province?
Chatting with Mike Martin during this interview made me appreciate how vast and varied Canada is. Mike writes about an Alberta Cree man who now lives in Newfoundland, while I write about characters at the extreme opposite end of our huge country.
Where we’re from and where we end up can often be two very different places. Mike and I touch on the idea that outsiders in a small community can have a perspective that longtime residents might not have. This can be essential sometimes for a mystery author’s sleuth ;-)
I am personally always intrigued by how the places in a novel inform the stories and affect the characters. Mike’s protagonist, Sgt. Windflower, has the unique experience of being from rural Northern Alberta. But he seems to have become quiet attached to the small Newfoundland community he finds himself in.
Click on any of the book covers to go to Mike’s books on Amazon.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Mike Martin
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is It’s a Mystery Podcast, and I’m here today with Mike Martin. Hi, Mike.
Mike: Hi, Alexandra.
Alexandra: How are you doing today?
Mike: I am doing great. It’s a beautiful sunny day in Ottawa.
Alexandra: Oh, good. Yes, it is here, too. Not too hot, so that’s amazing. So, let me give our listeners an introduction to you.
Mike Martin is a long-time freelance writer and the author of the “Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series.” The series is set in Newfoundland and features Cree, RCMP officer, Sgt. Winston Windflower who solves crime and discovers the natural beauty, food and culture of Newfoundland along the way.
The fifth and latest book in the series, “A Long Ways From Home” was shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award, which every year recognizes the best light mystery in Canada. A new book in the series, “A Tangled Web” will be published in the fall of 2017. Now, if I got that right, has A Tangled Web just been published?
Mike: It will be out in September of this year.
Alexandra: September of 2017, okay. Very good. That’s great.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a bit about Sgt. Windflower? He sounds like a quite a unique character, he’s a transplant from Alberta to Newfoundland and an Aboriginal man; he’s Cree. Tell us a bit about him.
I discovered this out of the fog in Newfoundland, and in Grand Bank is a lighthouse that’s often foggy near the White House. And just one evening, as I was sitting there watching the fog and the lighthouse sort of fade in and out, and that’s when Sgt. Windflower came to me. And so, over a period of time, he just sort of came and then he started telling me the story and I just wrote it down!
Alexandra: Oh, nice! That’s lovely.
When you say he came to you, what was it about him that struck you first?
Mike: Well, it’s more that he came complete. He came as a complete character. I didn’t have to add things to him. He kind of came in and introduced himself to me in some way that said, “Here I am.” And my job was to simply ask him questions, which I tried to do, and I guess I got to pick the setting where the story is, but I never think that I own the character or the stories that come out of that. I guess this comes from the creative ethers and I guess it’s one of the real fun things about fiction writing.
Alexandra: I’ve seen in book reviews and stuff on Amazon that people describe Sgt. Windflower as honorable, sort of calm character.
What else do you know about him and as you’ve explored him over the five books?
Mike: Well, I think that somebody described him as the nicest human being in Canada.
People ask me is Windflower modeled on me, and I said no. I’m trying to be like Windflower. I am trying to be that good person in the world, he’s not selfish, he likes to care for others, and he is kindly considerate.
He also has this thing of when he sees injustice, he wants to right it. He wants to fix things and sometimes that works really well and sometimes he should just mind his own business.
Alexandra: What has brought him to Newfoundland from Northern Alberta?
Mike: Well, he is an RCMP officer, and he got transferred to this small community of Grand Bank on the South East Coast of Newfoundland, and that was sort of his next natural progression of policing.
He’d been trained at the college and then he did some time on the west coast and he did a little bit of time in Halifax, and this was his position where he assumed a little bit of authority. He is a sergeant, he is running the detachment.
It’s not unusual that have the RCMP officers travel all over the country and his turn happened to be in Newfoundland.
Alexandra: And I guess it’s an assignment, right? They get to choose, they get assigned to the place?
Mike: They get assigned to the place. Now, conveniently for me, he got assigned to Newfoundland because I wanted to write about Newfoundland and the character was there, but yes, they don’t get a choice about their sort of initial assignments.
Now, they do get a chance to stay a little bit longer once they get some seniority. And that’s what happened to Windflower. He’s now had a couple of assignments that have allowed him to stay in Grand Bank, which is really convenient since he’s…probably got a lot of interest, and he’s got, you know, a community of friends and he’s developing a real fondness for the place.
Alexandra: And what is it about Newfoundland that you love? Did you grow up there or…?
Mike: I am from St. John’s, not from a small community, but I am from the big city in Newfoundland in St. John’s.
And actually, we ended up in Grand Bank because my partner, her parents, her father is from Grand Bank. And we ended up going there on vacation one year. She ended up buying her grandfather’s house and restoring it, and so we ended up staying in Grand Bank every year for a period of time. And so that was…we sort of connected to Grand Bank.
But I’ve always wanted to write about Newfoundland. I knew that when I was going to write fiction that it would be set in Newfoundland. That’s my home Province and I love talking about it.
Alexandra: Oh, lovely. That’s great.
I could tell from the reviews that I read that the the sense of place comes through so strongly in your books, and not to mention the lovely photographs on the covers.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about those. Are those your photographs?
Mike: Some are, I love the idea of using photographs on the front of the covers. And I have used a photograph on everyone and I have another great one coming up for the next book.
The pictures have not always been mine, I have to get permission from people. The first picture was actually a woman who was a blogger from somewhere down in Georgia, who was traveling on a on a sailboat with her husband up around the east coast and she took a picture of the lighthouse from outside, from the ocean. And that was what we use for the first, for the cover of the first book, “The Walker on the Cape.”
But the pictures themselves, they draw people in and every cover has a story, a little story behind it. So, I love when we do events sort of book signings that people will be attracted to the cover and would talk about Newfoundland.
Alexandra: Oh, now lovely. Yeah. They are just absolutely beautiful and I can see how they would draw people in, because they really do give a very strong sense of place. They are just gorgeous.
Let’s go back to Sgt. Windflower, and I just would like to know more about how he ended up in the RCMP.
Mike: Well, he…all I know of what he has told me of his story, he grew up in a small community, a northern community in Alberta, and you know what? His story is not unlike many other people who live in the small community. You aspire to be something else outside your community.
He started as an officer with the police force in his local community. And then, you know, I think, and he didn’t ever tell me this, I think he was attracted to the uniform and the whole idea of being an RCMP officer that have had this great sort of aura about it. And whenever, however he got, he got that and he got a chance to pursue his dream.
Alexandra: We were talking about his character a little bit earlier, I read that the Toronto Star had said that the RCMP should build a PR campaign around Sgt. Windflower because he’s such a great character and such a moral person. And for our listeners who don’t know who aren’t in Canada, the RCMP has been running into a few PR problems of late. I’m sure they would like more officers like Sgt. Windflower.
Mike: Well, I was just going to say that Windflower doesn’t shy away from that in his dealings on it. And there have been cases of sexual harassment in the RCMP, some that Sgt. Windflower had to deal with.
There was a heavy hand of brass that won’t let the locals sort of run their own shows, and Windflower fights back a little bit on that and…I didn’t think the service set in modern times, so you can’t ignore some of the things that are happening around you, including some of the problems that they had in our national police force in Canada.
Alexandra: I love it that you touch on that and sort of keep it real as it were.
Mike: Well, in small town Newfoundland, actually small town anywhere over North America and probably in other parts of the world, there is a local drug crisis. And as a drug, really serious drug power at the local level, taking in small real quantities.
One of the stories focuses on that issue completely almost and I don’t think you can ignore those kind of things. And those are the natural parts of police work that we need to talk about.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, exactly. And I noticed that in one of the books too, you bring up the issue of speaking of small communities. That the largest employer in Grand Bank is closing down.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that plot line?
Mike: It’s a common story to many small rural communities in Newfoundland and maybe lots of other places around the world. The Grand Bank in particular was the home of what was called the Grand Banks fishery, which was a fishery base off Grand Bank, that had all these marvelous of Grand Bank schooners that would travel all over the world, get fish, transport it down to Jamaica, get proposals, they would trade for rubber and bring it back. That was history and the story behind it.
And that all went. What happened was the industry of fishery collapsed in Newfoundland. There were no longer any fish to be caught by the small communities and so all the processing jobs, all the fish plants fall. And that change communities and so in most communities, in most small communities in Newfoundland, the population tends to be older, and there were high levels of unemployment and many young people have to leave.
Mike: That sounds pretty sad, doesn’t it?
Alexandra: It does.
Mike: The thing about the Windflower series, it’s a very happy story. Even though all these things are happening, people are finding a way and he finds a way to have fun, find some good food, have some laughs and have a good time.
Alexandra: Tell us about his attachment to food. I know he is particularly partial to peanut butter cheesecake.
Mike: He fancies himself a little of a gourmet. He is not really a gourmet but he fancies himself that way. He thinks that he could do that.
One of the things about the series that I wanted to do when I started writing a fiction series and a mistery series, was I loved Donna Leon’s books. If you have ever been familiar with those. They are set in Venice.
They feature a police officer and they feature these fabulous meals. These three course, four course Italian meals, and I was always attracted by that, and so in every book there is at least one or two great meals. And then, there’s lots of nice, smaller meals and, of course in Newfoundland there is lots of fish tissues and there’s always dessert.
Alexandra: I noticed someone else in one of your reviews talked about what great police procedures there are.
I’m curious about how you do research for what the procedures are like in the RCMP?
Mike: Well, Google is a great, great, great invention. You can look up just about anything now and, you know, the fact is that there have been a lot of crimes, you know, over the last hundred years and a lot of things have been researched around that.
So, it’s actually pretty easy to find what would kill people, what was the cause of death, what would people look like after they had died. But I am not really an expert in police procedure. I think it’s a minor priority of the story.
It needs to be accurate, so I tried to keep it simple. I tried not to get to make it too complex because I wouldn’t understand it myself and nobody else would either, and somebody will say that you got it wrong.
So, the worst thing you can do and this is where most of the writers get it wrong, and so I try to keep it simple. I would research for example there was a body found at sea and it’s a little bit gruesome, I don’t really get into it, but there is a certain way the body decomposes… Anyway, that’s all in the internet, anybody can go look it up and I did.
Alexandra: And so, for the for the stuff with the RCMP offices as well, you’re able to find information online about that?
Mike: Yes. And what kind of weaponry they have, for example, is common knowledge and it’s like what kind of helicopter they have, you know, you can find that. Like I said, I try not to go too far into it, and mostly it’s Windflower letting the story tell itself versus I’m so amazing a detective, I can figure this out.
He is not the best detective in the world. He is simply a police officer. What happens is somebody confesses to what happened and they tell you that this happened here or just becomes absolutely clear to everybody after you’ve eliminated everybody else, this person had to do it and Windflower would figure that out too.
Alexandra: Tell us a little bit about some of the other recurring characters in the book? So there’s a love interest, Sheila…
Mike: Sheila Alia, who is now the mayor of Grand Bank. And I apologize for people who haven’t started reading the story. And, first woman mayor in Grand Bank for the first couple of books, she was very quiet. She was the love interest, Sheila.
But she’s developed her own voice, you know, and she’s had her own sort of struggle. She was involved in a serious accident, and she had to get through the loss of her parents and an early age, and had her own business.
She originally owns a cafe work, some of the nice food café place in Grand Bank, so Sheila is now clearly her own person and her own character, and I have often thought that if there was ever gonna be a spin off that Sheila could be the character that could starts investigating and solving crimes herself.
Alexandra: Does she have an interest that way?
Mike: None. She is quite happy and actually she’s always a little tension about how much Windflower is away, how much he devotes to his work, and how much he gets to stay home and be part of her life as well. So, no, she’s not there but she’s really, really smart.
That’s one other thing about Sheila and more and more that comes in each book. And so many of the characters, he’s got a great side kick, his name is Eddy Tizzard, who has been with him through this series and he is kind of an idiot of odds. He is a great lovable guy who would do anything, but goes a little too fast and usually gets himself in trouble along the way.
And then, there is this retired crown attorney, whose Windflowers sort of confessor that he gets to go and talk to him and they sometimes figure things out themselves. He’s also introduced Windflower to classical music, so that’s another area that Windflower is evolving into.
Alexandra: I understand Windflower has an uncle as well who kind of keeps him maybe connected to his native roots.
Mike: He is an uncle and an aunty who are…they are his main surviving relatives, his parents have died again as well, they are dream weavers, which is a tradition in a family of people who can interpret dreams. And so they help Windflower who has some dreams and he actually goes and does some training with them about being a dream weaver himself. So, it’s another sort of aspect of the story that keeps evolving as the story goes on.
Alexandra: And to they live there in Newfoundland with him or are they in Alberta?
Mike: They are in Pink Lake.
Alexandra: Where is… In Alberta?
Mike: In Alberta. In northern Alberta.
Alexandra: Right. Okay. So, it strikes me as we are talking that Windflower sounds, he is almost like a bit of a fish out of water character, you know. He is a transplant in several ways.
He’s a Native American man in a primarily what I imagine is a white culture, European culture, and he’s in a province that he didn’t grow up in, and I imagine that gives him the ability to be sort of an observer of what’s going on.
Mike: Yeah. He actually started out as a real outsider, you know, and for all reasons you listed that he is far away, he’s not part of the community. He looks different. But one other things about Grand Bank, because it was an international fishing community, it had people visit it from all over the world and a lot of people in Grand Bank had visited a lot of places and is actually one of the few places in Newfoundland, that I would say, that is quite wealthy with outsiders.
And especially, outsiders who like them, who like their culture, who like their food, half of that like one of their women, you know, it’s kind of like, I wont say he glaciated himself to them, but he fit in. He found a way to, by liking what they liked, that they don’t consider him to be an outsider anymore.
Alexandra: He’s showing an appreciation for the culture and the people and the food which I imagine they in turn appreciate about him.
Mike: Exactly, you know. somebody would come from so far away, so different from them, would like the same things they do. It sets sort of a…there’s that melting part you are looking for that somehow he managed to find and it doesn’t apply to everybody because other people have come into the community, other RCMP officers, they don’t get the same welcome as Windflower but mostly because they tried to state who they are before they came versus trying to adapt into the local community.
Alexandra: Right….okay…yeah. Well, we’re almost out of time.
Why don’t you give us a little bit of a teaser about the upcoming book that’s coming out this fall?
Mike: Well, I just finished the draft. There will still be some changes once we get it back from formatting and things like that. But the next story may be a little darker than some of the other ones in that…in that there are some serious things that happened.
It is still light mystery, I don’t wanna be too serious and we’re not go into…hurt too many people, or… Some people have to die because this is about their history, but there are really things shaking up there and some of this involves Windflower himself. Some of the readers would know that Windflower and Sheila are expecting a baby…so, that came out in another book and, once again, I apologize to the people who haven’t read them already. That’s a natural evolution to a relationship, they got married and there is a baby on the way. And that sort of change of how he looks at the world.
There is also some really serious developments that happened in there, the question whether…he is questioning whether or not he wants to stay being an RCMP officer. So that is something that is a little more serious things than some of the other ones, but I guarantee you there will be good food, there will be good friends and there will be good company along the way.
Alexandra: That’s fantastic. So, why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about your books, Mike?
Mike: Well, you can find the Windflower books anywhere in Canada or the United States on Amazon, and there is a Sgt. Windflower Mystery Facebook page, and there is also a webpage, www.sgtwindflowermysteries.com.
Alexandra: Fantastic. That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much, Mike. It has been great chatting with you today.
Mike: Thanks, Alexandra.