Meet Sam Montcalm

Brief Biography of Sam Montcalm (from CSIS Files)

Samuel Tristram Montcalm. Private investigator, Ottawa. Residence 77 Buchan Street, Kitchissippi. Telephone 613-992-0751, No cell phone.

The subject was born in Santa Barbara, California on October 15, 1959. Father: Charles-Louis Montcalm, born Neuville, P.Q., Canada, 1915, died Los Angeles, 1985. Mother: Celia Snowdon, born Guelph, Ontario, 1924, died Los Angeles, 1983. Montcalm’s brother, Theodore Roosevelt Montcalm, born Ottawa, 1950, died Vancouver, B.C.,1977, by suicide. Vietnam volunteer and deserter, drug addict.

Samuel Montcalm attended UCLA, B.A. in Humanities Studies, studied criminology at University of Ottawa. Settled in Ottawa in 1985, private investigator, mostly cheating spouse and divorce investigations, background checks, undercover investigations, missing persons, fraud and work place investigations, obtaining and verifying sensitive information, and miscellaneous tailored enquiries. Montcalm is reported to have ties with Point-Blanc, an Ottawa scandal magazine and zine, and seem to have done various (unspecified) jobs for them. Despite his background, the subject has limited Francophone connections.

Informants report possible connections between the subject and foreign investigators (FBI, in particular), with respect to information-generation regarding Canadian politicians and Rockcliffe “movers and shakers.” This may be erroneous, given the subject’s declared support of leftist political views and agendas. Links to communist-anarchist groups are so far unspecified but possible, though some reports conclude that Montcalm is a wild card whose ideological commitments vary with his moods. The latter thesis, if accurate, would make him unpredictable, and potentially dangerous. It is therefore essential that periodical surveillance be maintained. Since the subject’s emotional attachments seem random and promiscuous, although solely heterosexual, it is suggested that “honey trap” methods would constitute a useful adjunct, should closer observation and control be deemed necessary.

It should be noted that the subject is assisted at times by Jacob Leonard Smith, a musician and musical scholar, often employed as a piano technician, who rents space at the subject’s Buchan Street address. Smith is a former draft resister and fugitive, born in New York City, and now a Canadian citizen. Smith’s sentimental left-wing views are known to overlap in many instances with those of Montcalm.

Last updated, July 1, 2010—file under “Ottawa Private Investigators-Montcalm.” See files XBT-2001-2007 for detailed records of meetings, contacts, sources.

Dundurn’s Interview with Tom Henighan, whose mystery novel NIGHTSHADE, was published in July, 2010.

1) Dundurn; Tell us about your novel.

My first two attempts at fiction were mystery novels, one of them based on a real murder I investigated in the British colony of Aden (now Yemen), the other set in the north of England, where I lived and studied for several years. Later, as a university professor, I taught the “hard-boiled” novels of Hammet, Chandler and others. I’m a great admirer of the European mystery novel, from Simenon to Nicholas Freeling  and the current Scandinavians, and as a film buff and lecturer on film I’ve always loved film noir.

NIGHTSHADE was inspired by my first visit to Quebec City in 2004. My wife noticed a sign for a detective agency on the Grand Allée, and I put this together with a scientific conference and an art exhibition that were happening then in the city. My detective, Ottawa-based Sam Montcalm, was suggested by the family history of a relative of my wife’s who worked for C.D. Howe in Ottawa in the 1950s. He and his family later moved to California, with tragic consequences.

Writing NIGHTSHADE I found myself attempting to update my hardboiled hero, to place him firmly in some real environments, and to avoid jocularity and parody in favour of a more in-depth look at a very proud man– intelligent and embarrassed by his failures– a man who is a bit of a dinosaur, but also acutely conscious of the present.

I’m already at work on a second Sam Montcalm novel and this one will be partially set in Los Angeles. That seems a good template—part of each Montcalm novel to be set in Ottawa and other parts in world cities with which I’m familiar.

2) What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

I started writing before creative writing workshops became ubiquitous (although I founded the fiction workshop at Carleton University and taught it for ten years), so I took my advice where I found it. In England, I heard a wonderful interview with Graham Greene, who confessed to a love of plot and melodrama. And E.M. Forster (somewhat reluctantly) admitted that “oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story.” I love the up-front story-telling of the mystery novel, which as Simenon and others have shown, needn’t undermine the seriousness and depth of the fiction. My children’s novels all have good stories, and I’ve been a bit disappointed that this seems to be no great virtue in the eyes of some Canadian reviewers. Of course these are often the same reviewers who miss more artful components, such as the mythical resonances of my YA novel, DEMON IN MY VIEW, or the retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in DOOM LAKE HOLIDAY.

In the mystery novel, plot has a special necessity: the writer is playing a game with the reader, and it’s very important that the “guessing game” (the “whodunit” part) doesn’t distort the natural flow of the narrative.

One of my biggest discoveries in writing novels is that the characters “speak because they want to speak” (as an academic analyst puts it). That means that once you have a character of any dimension in your story the character tells you, the author, what he or she will or won’t do. If you force such a character to fit into a preconceived plot the novel crashes. The writer has to listen to his characters. They’re far more important than the critics or reviewers!

3) What’s the most memorable response you’ve ever had from a reader?

When I was trying to market COMING OF AGE IN ARABIA, a very well-known American literary agent  (president of U.S. agents association) called me and told me how good he thought the book was. Unfortunately, he didn’t think he could sell a lot of copies and didn’t take it on. After the book was published by Penumbra Press in Canada in 2004, a very distinguished Stanford fellow and senior professor at the University of the Americas in Puebla, called me from Mexico to congratulate me on the book, which he called one of the best books he’d ever read on a British colony. In a quite different but  equally important realm, two young people thrilled me with their enthusiasm—a high school girl who approached me rather shyly at a reading and told me: “I have to tell you that I loved MERCURY MAN.” And a 12-year old reader in Indiana who wrote ( just a few months ago)  a wonderfully intelligent and upbeat on-line review of DOOM LAKE HOLIDAY. Nothing trumps the enthusiasm of youth! And it’s very inspiring to writers—to me at least!

3) What did you read as a young adult?

I read historical novels by writers like Dumas, Joseph Altsheler, and Kenneth Roberts, and in my teens I discovered the Russian novelists, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and then some fairly offbeat ones like Ivan Bunin, and also the Scandinavians, including Johannes V. Jensen, Knut Hamsun, and other Nobel Prizewinners. I also read a lot of quality American literature, from Poe and Hawthorne to Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Hemingway and Faulkner. (Radio drama was also a huge influence)

4) What is your next project?

I am just finishing The Boy from Left Field, a novel about a group of Toronto kids who find Babe Ruth’s lost 1914 baseball, and I am well underway on the second Sam Montcalm novel, which carries Sam to Los Angeles in search an unusual woman caught in the centre of a bizarre international political and emotional tangle.

Tom Henighan interviews Sam Montcalm, private investigator and hero of his novel NIGHTSHADE and of other mysteries still to come.

T.H. I find it a bit strange, interviewing a character from one of my books. Makes me feel a little schizophrenic

S.M. Don’t sweat it—writers have to be slightly schizophrenic, don’t they? They have to be able to wriggle right out of their own skins, to become other people. Look at it from my point-of-view—my very existence depends on you. That’s a lot more frightening.

T.H. Yeah, I see what you mean. On the other hand, fictional characters sometimes get free of their creators. Conan Doyle doesn’t control Sherlock Holmes—it’s the other way around. Shakespeare is just a shadow compared with Lady Macbeth. Even Mark Twain nearly has to take a back seat to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

S.M. Tell me more, I love it. I may have a future after all!

T.H. (laughs) It’s time for some questions. Would you call yourself a “hardboiled” or a “noir” character?

S.M. Those characters—those private eyes of Hammett, Chandler and others–belong to a certain moment in the past—the 1940s and 1950s– when disillusionment had set in with the American way of life and the big cities. I’m not that kind of character. I share some things with those heroes, but there are huge differences. “Mean streets” aren’t my specialty. I deal with the rich and successful. I may be tough, but I’m not a “tough guy,” one who wallows in macho sentimentality. I’m not a spoof of the past, I’m a contemporary guy, one who isn’t afraid of thought, sensitivity, and culture. It’s true that I’m an individualist, with my own code of values. But so are most sensible people these days.

TH. Sam, I’ve been thinking about you for years and I’m still not sure that I understand what makes you tick.  You’re a private investigator—would you say that  fulfills a boyhood dream, or is it something you just stumbled into?

SM. I grew up in California. When I was a boy I wanted to be a surfer, but after a few close calls I chickened out. I was taken to the Hollywood Bowl and wanted to be a famous pianist or conductor. It never happened. I liked to read about famous explorers, but by the time I grew up there was nothing left to explore, except outer space, which doesn’t interest me. I wanted to be a research scientist specializing in forensics, but I flunked chemistry every time. That’s right—I just stumbled into investigating.

TH. You were born in California of a Quebecois father and an Anglo-Canadian mother. How do you reconcile these very different roots? Do you consider yourself American, Canadian, or what?

SM. I feel American by nature but I’m enthusiastically Canadian by choice. Like any immigrant to Canada with a strong background elsewhere, I have a special perspective on things, a kind of blended vision. Like any Quebec-derived person with shaky language credentials, I feel a bit embarrassed when I’m put to the test. I keep hoping that one day I’ll plant both feet firmly in a recognizable soil, but the ground underneath me keeps shifting. To venture a bad pun—you could say that at least it keeps me on my toes.

TH. You do a lot of work on infidelity cases and other sleazy aspects of the elegant Ottawa life. How do you feel about that?

SM. I see that as just another aspect of the politics that enmeshes us all. We’re all living in a civilization that will soon be washed up. Personal rottenness takes on a special quality in an age of decline. As you see, I try to distance myself from the sleaze through philosophy. It doesn’t always work.

TH. Some people seem to think that you’re a romantic, especially in relation to women. What’s your take on that?

SM. My passions aren’t in bondage to my brain– if that’s romanticism I’m a romantic. But I try to turn a critical eye on everything—that’s why I’m an investigator. Some aspects of romanticism are very dangerous—Charles Manson was an offshoot of Romanticism. The Romantic death wish is dangerous—I can only take so much Wagner. But I like Romantic energy and striving and pursuit of beauty. That kind of passion—for me at least– goes a long way toward making life worth living. Of course I find women fascinating, and beautiful women alluring—I’m a heterosexual male with a lot of restless energy. But I like beauty in many forms—I revel in whatever seems beautiful to me– music, art, poetry, natural scenes, even food, so why not beautiful people? As a heterosexual male I happen to like women.  All forms of beauty give us a glimpse of eternity. Didn’t Plato say something like that?

T.H. Your comments lead me to ask: would you call yourself a highbrow? And if you do, don’t you think it turns people off?

S.M. What’s wrong with liking what you grew up liking? I don’t force anyone to like what I like, or put down other people’s tastes. I like to read, I go to art exhibitions and I dote on classical music. I probably got into classical music because when I was a young guy I heard some things that got through to me and I realized: “Hey, there’s a whole world there to explore!”  I never thought of “serious” music as highbrow. It just seemed exciting to me. It still does. But I like jazz too, and traditional folk. It’s not a question of snobbery. And of course there are detectives who like classical music—Inspector Morse, of happy memory, is one.

TH. De Quincey wrote about murder as a fine art. Do you think that murder can be a fine art?

S.M. There are all kinds of murders—as I’m sure De Quincey knew. There’s stupid, accidental murders—guys getting killed in barroom fights. There’s bureaucratic, cold-assed mass murders, as in Hitler and the Jews. And there’s everything in between. The murders that detectives like to deal with are the tricky ones, the ones that don’t compute, the ones that reveal human nature at its strangest and deepest, that bring you face to face with the depths of human passion, striving, and frustration. And today  people are fascinated by the way that the collective and the personal intertwine. A killer strikes, let’s say, for political reasons. So what is that killer’s mind like? That’s one question. But there are other questions. How does he or she relate to the larger forces—corporations, countries, international gangs, the police, ordinary citizens, and so on? And how is the situation unique to the modern world? How does technology figure in it? Is this part of a pattern of conspiracy or secrecy that dwarfs the individual? We know people sometimes kill other people out of passion or greed, but that’s not news. What we want to know is how all the strands—personal and collective– are wound up together. What the detective wants to do is to clarify things by unraveling or cutting the Gordian knot that binds the killer (and the rest of us as well) to all these weird and sinister social factors. That’s why it helps when—as in my case—the detective has links to different aspects of modern society. As we’ve discussed, I have a mixed background and I’ve lived in several countries, and travel quite a lot. I’m acutely aware of diversities and contradictions.

T.H. Why do you make a big thing of living in Ottawa. Some people think it’s a boring, bureaucratic city? Why should we care about an investigator’s take on his own city, or a foreign city? Why is evoking such atmospheres important?

S.M. Ottawa is bureaucratic, of necessity, but increasingly less boring these days. In fact, it probably never was boring, just a little straight-laced. It didn’t have much panache. But dig into any city and you find fascinating realities. Realities that could only happen in that way in that particular place. Places affect what happens and how we interpret it. There are nuances, shadings, details that convey specific truths that are otherwise hard to pinpoint. It isn’t just a matter of which suspect was where, with whom, at what time. Books that lead us through a superficial, generalized dance of connections are a little boring. Maigret’s Paris and its era are as important as Maigret himself and as important as the plot of this or that Simenon story. Important modern crime novelists have set their stories in New York, Florida, the Ozarks, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Africa, you name it– and the settings count. It’s not just “setting” either—it’s the conveying of a concrete local world within the big world of modern communications and power structures. A stop at a local café, bar, or laundry can be as important as a visit to the Louvre.  The place the detective inhabits or visits conveys his uniqueness, his place in this big buzzing world of ours. It can’t be glossed over.

T.H. Last question. What’s the place of humour or comedy in crime fiction?

S.M. Its place is to be part of the story, not laid on with a trowel. Real comedy derives from plausible actions that touch on the exaggerated or absurd. The comedy of language—oh those crazy similes!—is what enlivens the novels of Raymond Chandler. The language of wit and the comedy of exploded contradictions is fine for crime stories. But please let’s not try too hard to be “funny.” That kills the terror, and the terror is what’s important—it’s what makes the story compelling. Fear and desire are the two key emotions that underlie all stories. And if you follow my life and adventures, you’ll find those potent twins in spades.


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