Small towns feature their own kind of danger.

Murder in a Small Canadian Town with JG Toews

Judy Toews and I both live in small towns in British Columbia and she has set her Stella Mosconi books in the town where she lives, Nelson. As she points out in the interview, after she reads from Lucky Jack Road, it’s intriguing to set a murder mystery in a small town because most people know one another. And Judy wanted readers to feel like the murders in her books were situations that could actually happen.

In the introduction to the show I mention that if you’d like to know what Nelson looks like you could check out the Steve Martin movie Roxanne. It’s a very funny movie, and very sweet as well, and it was filmed entirely in Nelson so you’ll get a good understanding of the landscape and architecture in this small Canadian town.

Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor

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This week’s mystery author

Judy Toews

JG Toews is a health professional turned crime writer. She lives in Nelson, BC, an artsy mountain town that inspires the setting for her Stella Mosconi mysteries. Give Out Creek (Mosaic Press) was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Unhanged Award and the 2019 Lefty Award for Best Debut Mystery Novel.

Book two, Lucky Jack Road, was released in September 2020.

To learn more about Judy and her books visit her website at JGToews.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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Excerpt from Lucky Jack Road

ONE

Lucky Jack Road JG Toews

He scooped her up in his arms and threatened to toss her in the pond, laughing when she shrieked and clutched at him, turning her head to avoid his big open mouth. She clawed at his face. He dropped her. Touched his cheek and stared dumbly at the trace of blood on his fingers.

Coughing and spluttering, she scrambled up and out of the pond, water streaming from her clothes. “Bad girl,” he said, catching up, slamming her against the big shade tree, his hand on her throat nearly crushing her windpipe. She tried to yell but choked on the words. Kneed him and he howled and let go. 

She ran for her bike. “What the fuck?” he called after her, as if the whole thing had been nothing, a minor misunderstanding. She pushed off, careened down the hill and across town barely touching the brakes until she reached her street, her house.

Her mother was on her knees in the garden. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing. Rode through a couple puddles.”

“Look at you – you’re a mess. Where’s your helmet? I’m not buying you another one.”

“That’s okay,” she said, leaning on the handlebar to catch her breath. “I know where it is.” 

TWO

Twenty-two years later. . .

Stella grabbed her bicycle and raced to the courthouse to get the story when the verdict in the logging standoff came in. Media types from as far away as Vancouver jockeyed for position as protesters waved anti-logging placards at passing cars. No sooner had she parked the bike and pulled out her camera than – bam – the big wooden doors swung open and men in suits stepped out, flanking the defendant. He bellowed to his supporters, raised his arms in a V for victory. Stella nailed the shot, then jumped into the fray to catch quotes from the lawyers.

Minutes later, she was back on the bike, pumping up Stanley Street standing up. Wheeling a sharp right onto Nelson’s main drag, she cursed under her breath. Jack Ballard, the last guy she wanted to see, was sitting outside the Dominion Café. He’d tipped back on his chair to lift his tanned, chiseled face to the sun, black curls grazing the collar of a scarlet bike shirt open to the waist. Long, muscular legs stretched halfway to the curb where a high-end mountain bike leaned against a Victorian lamp post. 

Eyes straight ahead, she upped her pace.

“Yo, Stella.” 

Goddamn.

“Lookin’ good,” he called as she sped past. Taunting her. 

Most days it seemed everyone in town loved Jack Ballard, everyone except Stella. She’d known him forever, but thought she’d seen the last of him when she left Nelson straight out of high school. But now she’d found her way back, settled in with a family and job. Readjusting to the small-town fishbowl had not been easy, though she had managed to fly under Ballard’s radar for a while. Now it seemed every time she turned around, there he was.

Shoving Jack Ballard to the back of her mind, she carried on to the old railway station that was home to the Nelson Times. Upstairs, editor Patrick Taft was holding a draft of the front page. “Give me the camera,” he said as she rushed into the newsroom. “I’ll size the photo while you fill in the blanks in your story.” Stella handed over the camera and woke up her computer. “Nice,” Patrick said, clicking through the images. “This the guy who chained himself to a bulldozer? Looking pretty chuffed now. But that verdict could have gone either way.”

“Definitely.” Stella transcribed the lawyer quotes and forwarded her copy. 

“Visser,” Patrick called across the room to the paper’s only other reporter. “Check out this front page. This is how it’s done.”

In her head, Stella Mosconi did a little victory dance. No sense letting Ballard spoil her day.

* * *

Joe never tired of the view of Elephant Mountain through his classroom window. If he squinted, he could make out the CBC tower up top where the aspen and birch were still in full leaf. At his previous school on the Coast, he’d be sucking stale air in a science lab in the bowels of a building that dated back to the 1920s. Now he only had to look up from his desk to drink in an outstanding panorama of mountains, lake, and sky. Within minutes he could be hiking, cycling, or out paddling on the lake. And as a newly minted volunteer with Nelson Search and Rescue, he had upped the ante. Going after lost hikers and skiers in places that fed his soul – it couldn’t get any better.

Joe graded the last Biology 12 lab report from the stack on his desk and locked his classroom door. If no one waylaid him at the office, he’d have time to stop by his favourite bike shop on the way home. 

At Ballard’s Cycles the front door was wide open, the owner scrolling through pictures of bikes on his computer. Jack Ballard had cycled professionally in his late teens and twenties, making a living doing what ordinary schmucks only dream about. After retiring from competition he’d come back to his hometown to set up shop. For all the things he’d done and places he’d seen, Jack seemed happy enough to kick back in sleepy old Nelson. For bike nuts like Joe you couldn’t ask for a better guy to run a bike store. Anything you needed – support for a cause, a prize for a race – Jack was your go-to guy. Now he looked up from his screen and boomed, “Joe. What’s happenin,’ man?”

“Just another day in paradise. But here’s a question: What can I put my ten-year-old on that’ll challenge him without freaking out his mother?”

“Hey, happy wife, happy life.” Jack sauntered out from behind the counter, a master of timing, never rushed, never stressed. “Speaking of. How’s she doing, your lady? She blasted past me on her bike today. Every time I see her, man, those legs are working overtime to spin those wheels.” 

 “She’s good,” Joe said, squelching a flicker of jealousy. Ballard had a way of turning the conversation to Stella. But then in a town the size of Nelson they would have known each other growing up. “Thing is, with less than two months left in the season,” Joe continued, “she won’t be keen to buy the kid a new bike. He’s ready for a real technical ride though, champing at the bit.”

“I hear ya,” Jack said. “And I can cut you a deal, my friend. Our end-of-season sale starts early this year, a birthday gift to myself. Hey, you and Stella – you guys free Friday night? Party at my place. Help me celebrate the Big 4-0.” Jack’s cell rang and he reached for it. “Yo, babe,” he said, then covered the mouthpiece and turned back to Joe. “Take a look at that red and gold stunner on the sidewalk. Your kid’ll love it. I guarantee it.”   

Joe went outside. The all-terrain bike with front and rear suspension was a stunner all right, as was the price tag. Matt would be all over it. Stella, not so much. 

Back in the store, Jack was still on his phone. He winked at Joe. “Jeez, babe,” he said to the caller. “It’s a zoo in here. Haven’t taken a break all day. Better you go pick it up anyway – make sure they sized it right, yeah? One sec, okay?” To Joe, he said, “So?”

“Nice machine. Bit over the budget though.”

“Hold on,” Jack said. “I got another idea.” He ended his call and pointed to a fat-tire bike that hung suspended in the front window. “Now that’s too heavy for a ten-year-old but I can get you a lighter model, no sweat. A fat bike won’t break the bank yet the wow factor is there, know what I’m saying? Your boy’ll be able to take it anywhere. Hell, he can ride it when the snow flies.”

Joe laughed. “Now I want one.”

“Hey, do it. Meantime, don’t forget: Friday night. Be there. You and the lovely Stella.”

As Joe left the shop, he almost bumped into a dark-haired teenager who looked vaguely familiar. “Sorry about that,” he said, taking a closer look. “Do I know you from the school?”

“Don’t think so,” the boy said. “I was there for a bit last year. But now I’m, ah, doing my senior year online?” 

“Well, good luck with that,” Joe said. “Give me a shout if I can help. I’m Mosconi, by the way, science and biology. What was your name?”

“Kieran. Uh, thanks.” The boy loped to the back where he and Jack greeted each other with some sort of convoluted handshake.

Joe was quick to forget the kid as he drove home, April Wine blaring on the sound system, his mind on fat-tire bikes and Jack’s party invitation as he tapped out the rhythm on his steering wheel. A relative newcomer to Nelson, he was flattered to be on Jack’s A-list, if indeed he was. No mention of an address for the party but then everyone knew where Jack lived. It occurred to Joe “the lovely Stella” might have had a crush on Jack back in the day – maybe Ballard had the hots for her too. Thoughts that damped down Joe’s mood as he crossed the bridge over Kootenay Lake. He couldn’t see them as a teen couple though. Stella would have been too wholesome for Jack, and even as a kid he would have attracted the foxy girls at school. 

Later: 

On the morning after celebrating his fortieth birthday with a big party, Jack Ballard’s body has been found at the bottom of a popular hiking trail.

McKean checked his phone for messages as he hiked up Elephant Mountain, looking up as a posse of teenage girls brushed past him on their way down the trail, among them Cassidy Pickering. She didn’t meet his eyes so he didn’t greet her. No doubt it wasn’t cool to appear friendly with the police. 

The trail had dried out since Saturday and it felt good to stride along, boulder hopping at the corners, jogging on the straight stretches. The air was clear in spite of a faint scent of smoke; some eager beaver must be burning branches and garden waste. A little early for that, in McKean’s opinion; the trees were only beginning to drop their leaves. For no apparent reason, an image of Jack Ballard’s chest cavity came to mind but he brushed it off. His memory of Ballard was of a man in motion, a guy with the grace of a professional athlete – no wasted moves. Not someone likely to stumble over a cliff, even if he hadn’t quite sobered up after a night of heavy drinking.

At the last switchback before the viewpoint, McKean realized he hadn’t met or passed anyone on the trail other than the teenagers. A quiet day then – that should make his job easier. But at the top, a lone female, possibly a lingering teen from the group he’d passed, sat on a rock outcropping with her back to him. She was dressed for cycling but must have left her helmet on the bike because the wind was having its way with her long chestnut hair. Recognition pierced him like an arrow. Stella Mosconi. It was too late to retreat. Not wanting to startle her, McKean called out a greeting.

She turned and stood up. “Ben, hi,” she said, her lips curving in a smile. “Returning to the scene of the crime?” Pleasure washed through him like a drug.

“There’s no evidence it is a crime scene at this point,” he said. Officious ass.

“Right.” Stella remained standing. “But since you’re in uniform I’m guessing you’re up here on business.”

“Who’s the detective here?” Another groaner. Particularly since the title didn’t apply to him or anyone else in Nelson’s small independent police force. 

Stella Mosconi was generous enough to laugh, and the faint lines by her eyes made her even prettier than usual. “I’ve been trying to track you down, actually,” she said. “What can you tell me about the incident?” Ever the reporter. 

“Waiting for the coroner’s report.” He hesitated. With anyone except Stella he would have left it at that, but he blathered on. “Shouldn’t be long – the autopsy is pretty much done. You remember Antoniak, the pathologist from the Coast. I spoke to him this morning.”

“And?”

“Stella.”

“I know. You’re waiting for the coroner’s report.” She still didn’t walk away. He was rooted to the spot. She could probably tell he was sweating – Stella never missed a thing. Perhaps as a kindness, she looked out over the lake before she spoke again. “Did you know him? Ballard, I mean. Were you a card-carrying member of the Jack Ballard fan club?”

“Knew him to see him from back in school. I talked to him once about bikes, but found what I wanted at MEC in Vancouver.”

“Joe wants to buy a fancy bike for Matt,” Stella said, “although the one Ballard suggested seems over the top for a ten-year-old. I wonder what’ll happen to the shop now? There’s a handwritten ‘closed’ sign on the window. I guess his family will have to decide whether to let the staff carry on or sell the business.” She shook her head then met his eyes again. “Did you come up here to try to figure out how he fell?”

“Routine follow-up,” he said, but he didn’t want her to leave. “I saw your husband with Search and Rescue on Saturday. I might have hassled him a little.”

“Yeah? Well, Joe’s a high school teacher. Teflon-coated.” She smiled again. “So, what do you think happened? Was it an accident?”

“Hard to say. What’s your theory?” Shut up, McKean. Don’t engage with the press.

“I don’t really have one.” Stella looked out over the lake again. “Jack Ballard always struck me as one of a kind, so maybe it’s not surprising his death was out of the ordinary.”

“Sounds like you knew him pretty well.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Stella said, hastily, making McKean curious about what had gone on between them. “I do know he had a lot to drink at his birthday party the night before, which might have affected his judgment.” She met his eyes. “Yeah, I was there. He was already wasted when Joe and I left around midnight, and we were among the first to leave. Hey, and get this, Kieran Corcoran tried to crash the party. Did you know he was back in town?”

Ben hesitated. “We were advised of his release, but I haven’t seen him around.”

“I asked Ballard about him,” Stella said, “He didn’t say much except that he’d taken Kieran under his wing – that was the expression he used. Yet he threw the kid out of his party, supposedly because Kieran was under the legal drinking age. Seems weird, doesn’t it? And don’t you find it strange that Kieran would get involved with Ballard so soon after returning to Nelson? That kid seems like a magnet for trouble.”

“I’ll track him down and have a chat with him,” Ben said.  “Any other thoughts about Jack Ballard?”

Stella paused. “I guess accidents happen all the time, but this one – I don’t know. At the party he ranted a bit about climbing mountains. But why would he have trudged up here on a miserable day after all that partying? I suspect he might still have been drunk the morning after, but even so, he was an athlete in the prime of life. I can’t see him being clumsy enough to stumble over the edge.”

So Stella had come to the same conclusion as he had. And she’d referred to him as Ballard rather than Jack, which seemed significant. For a whole bunch of reasons, McKean couldn’t bring himself to end the conversation. “You didn’t say whether you were a member of the Jack Ballard fan club.”

“Definitely not. But I have an alibi for all day Saturday.” She smiled. “Seriously though, don’t you find this death curious?”

McKean shrugged. “Any unusual death has to be investigated.” Way to kill a conversation, idiot.

“Right. Well, better leave you to it,” she said. 

He watched as she disappeared down the trail. 

So, Stella had “definitely not” been a fan of Jack Ballard – there was a story there.

Interview transcript with JG Toews

Alexandra: Nice. Thank you, Judy. That was great.

I’ve only been to Nelson once. It’s a lovely little town. Really nestled in the mountains.

I was impressed that Stella rides her bike because it’s very hilly or at least that’s what I remember.

Judy: It is very hilly. Stella rides her bike from her cabin along the lake. So she’s not riding really big hills. To ride to work, as I used to do when I worked in town and I live now out of town.

Nelson is a wonderful outdoorsy town and also an artsy area. And as you gathered from my story, Stella’s husband kind of dragged her back to Nelson kicking and screaming because he’s such an outdoorsy guy, even though she has a lot of bad memories from growing up in Nelson and not only with her experience with Jack Valor, but also her dad left her and her mom when she was 12 years old.

So there’s a lot of backstory there, but I felt that Nelson was a perfect place to set a mystery, not just because I know it very well, but because it’s so beautiful and, on the surface, so incredibly attractive, but it does have an underbelly, like most places. It also has an independent police force.

And it still has its own newspaper to give a Stella a job, although that’s increasingly going online. So we might have to get creative in our future books, but it seemed like a nice setting. What I’m really exploring in Lucky Jack Road in particular is all the connections when you live in a small town.

I’ve lived here 39 years so I feel like I know everybody, but I don’t know everybody. I meet people every day that I’ve never met before. And, so it’s not that small, but there’s connections. I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. So that really happens a lot to Stella.

The man she most wants to avoid in the world isn’t dead but there’s no closure for her because she has connections to all these people. And I think that’s very realistic in a small town.

Alexandra: Absolutely. I can relate to that. I live in a small town as well, and I’ve only lived here for three years and yet it’s amazing how fast you get to know people and how there’s just such a web of connection, like you said.

Judy: Isn’t that interesting: three years. I just pictured you and I look at pictures of you on the beach, on your social media and I think of you as having lived there forever.

And it is interesting how people are friendly in smaller places. It sounds like a cliche, but I really noticed when you walk down the street in small towns, people do look at each other to see, do I know you are? And if I don’t know you, who are you?

Alexandra: Yes. Here everybody says hello. And even if you don’t know the person, you’ve seen them around town. And then when it comes on to summertime and it may be different than Nelson because you have both a winter and a summer tourist season, ours tends to mostly be summer. So when it comes into summer and people walk down the street and they don’t meet your eye, then I always know, Oh, that’s someone from out of town.

Judy: I’m noticing this summer there are a lot of tourists and Nelson and of course, Dr. Bonnie Henry has encouraged us to be a tourists within our own province. So a lot of them are people from not very far away, but there’s a different feeling. And one of the interesting indicators of this summer with COVID is that the visitors aren’t as likely to wear a mask.

Alexandra: Same here actually.

Judy: Or maybe we feel a little more protective of each other and of our town and maybe it’s human nature to run away from home for awhile. I want to just pretend everything’s normal.

Alexandra: When you wrote Give Out Creek, were you envisioning the books as a series then?

Give out creek

Judy: I love reading mysteries. I love series. It’s funny, I don’t appreciate the standalones that I read, even from my favorite series authors. I really like to get to know a person over time and the wonderful long series where you see people grow and develop and age and their relationships change and all of this sort of thing I really wanted to from the start.

I didn’t know exactly where I was going to go with this second book, Lucky Jack Road. But I, I had a vague idea when I came up with Give Out Creek and I feel that because it is a small town I want readers to imagine that deaths could have happened.

They’re not big city type murders. At least not so far. You never know.

But I like to think it can happen. I really wondered if I should call Nelson Nelson when I wrote Give Up Creek, because it is such a small town. And generally you notice that when people write about small towns, they sometimes use another name and I was inclined that way at first.

I thought, first of all, we have a very small, independent police force and I’ve got this prominent police man who, by the way, thinks his chief is a bit of a doofus. And our chief of police is a wonderful guy who actually answers my questions for my book.

Alexandra: Wow.

Judy: I gave him a copy of Give Out Creek and I prepped him quietly, like, um, in fact, I think somewhere they acknowledgements, I said that when I thanked him, I said he bore no resemblance whatsoever to the chief of police in my stories.

I hesitated, but a number of people, including my editor and publisher and husband, and one of my closest friends really wanted me to call it Nelson because it is Nelson so much.

And I’m glad I did because it feels like the stories belong to the town, you know? And I’ve got that from a lot of people.

I do take a few liberties with things. I moved Give Out Creek, for example, to a totally different place. Because right now, the real Give Out Creek doesn’t flow directly into the lake, so I took a little literary license there and I get questioned about that when I’m speaking to people but I think you’re allowed to do that when you write fiction.

Alexandra: Exactly. I feel like Nelson is a town with a lot of personality. And like I say, I’ve only been there once, but the architecture is really interesting. There’s older buildings. The setting is really interesting with the mountains and the lake. So I’m pleased that you left, that you left the name that way.

Are there any of your favorite features of Nelson then that you’ve either written about already or plan to write about?

Judy: I love the lake. I live on the lake and my main character, Stella Moscone, is terrified of deep water water, and everybody’s going to find out why in book three.

I actually share that fear. I don’t have a lot of other things in common with Stella. She’s much younger and better looking, but we do share that fear.

In Lucky Jack Road, Jack Ballard falls to his death at a very popular hiking trail, Everybody and Nelson hikes, everybody who has the strength and the inclination.

I went on a lot of hikes before I picked Pulpit Rock as the place he would fall because my husband kept saying it’s not likely he’d die falling off there. But it is possible to die. I like the idea that he was somewhere that everybody goes.

And in fact, when I was promoting, Give Up Creek, I was walking around town with my bookmarks, giving them to people and asking them if I could take their picture. And everybody said yes. And that included people walking up to Pulpit Rock so that was kind of fun.

Alexandra: You mentioned book three, so you do have plans for another book. That’s great.

Are you working on that now?

Judy: I am. I probably, like many other people over the last few months, have not gotten as much writing done on that book as I had hoped, but it’s completely outlined and a great deal of detail because I kind of learned my lesson with book two.

I strayed a bit from the path sometimes. And fortunately I have a wonderful editor who got me back on the path, but it was a lot of work. We’re rewriting. And I thought this can be corrected by a little, I thought I had planned and plotted, but now I’m doing that in more detail and, or I have done that in more detail, and I know that I’ll still get lots of surprises from my characters as I’m carrying on with my draft, which I’m not very far in, but I’m feeling more confident that I can be a bit more efficient.

I need to be more efficient since the years are passing along. I want to write lots of these.

Alexandra: Do you happen to know when it’ll be out?

Judy: I do not know. It’s so hard to tell. I will Give Out Creek, as you mentioned, was released in September.

Well, it was originally supposed to be released in May. When the pandemic came along we talked about it. My rep at mosaic press and I thought that maybe the book will have a bit of a better chance that it gets pushed back to September. I think we all thought that it might not be as tenacious as it is.

So we’ll have to wait and see. I once had a dream of a book every year and so far, I’m a book every two years. We’ll see, we’ll have to buckle down.

Alexandra: One final comment. I loved it in the section that you read that you mentioned April Wine, which our American listeners might not know is a Canadian band.

Judy: Yeah. My characters, even Jack Ballard, who his favorite bands tend to be Canadian bands. So those are the ones that I mentioned in the book. Yeah.

Alexandra: They were big when I was in high school, along with Rush and Trooper and all those Canadian bands. Anyway, I love that little detail that you threw in.

Thank you so much, Judy. It’s been lovely chatting with you.

Why don’t you let everyone know where they can find out more about you and your books?

Judy: I have a website JGToews.com. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter on Facebook.

And my handle is usually JG Toews or Judy. It’s so not hard to find me. I so appreciated this time with you. Thank you very much.

Alexandra: Oh, it’s been my pleasure. And I will put links to your website in the show notes as ever. So thanks Judy. Take care.

Judy: Thank you. You too. Bye bye.