"I am Obsessed with Place" Anna Dowdall on Whisking Readers to Paris and Montreal in Her Twisty New Mystery Novel
Private investigator Ashley Smeeton returns for a third time in Anna Dowdall's lush new mystery novel, April on Paris Street (Guernica Editions), which sees the Montreal-based PI travel to Paris on what at first seems to be a quotidian case. But against the swirling backdrop of French Carnaval, amidst masks and disguises, Smeeton starts to realize that there's something off about this case.
In a story divided between the shimmering lights of the old world and the grittier setting of Smeeton's home turf of Montreal (which also happens to be Dowdall's own hometown), twists and turns keep readers fascinated as Smeeton tries to stay a step ahead, unravelling truth from lies and uncovering, with danger mounting at every turn, just who is pulling the strings of the strange illusion she's found herself part of.
We're excited to welcome Anna to Open Book to talk about April in Paris Street, the perfect, smart page-turner to kick off your 2022 reading. She tells us about how Smeeton elbowed her way in from side character in another of Dowdall's books to become a leading lady, how exploring the unexamined mysteries of cities and place motivates her as a writer, and the three main things she learned from writing this book.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
A Montreal private investigator with a few personal challenges takes on what she thinks will be a lucrative if weird damsel in distress case, but finds herself instead sucked into a Thelma and Louise adventure of the soul.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
April on Paris Street is my third book featuring Ashley Smeeton, PI. This was not the plan. She began as a secondary character in After the Winter, a pigtailed nine-year-old with a Nancy Drew-inspired obsession. She took over somehow and assumed the protagonist role in The Au Pair and now April on Paris Street. She has been dear to my heart as she evolves throughout, and more than one reader has fallen under her spell. She is an odd child and becomes an odd adult. For my PI I wanted a working class heroine, a likeable young woman of the people, quintessentially Canadian in her multiple identities. She has some of the broad-stroke characterization you would expect to find in crime fiction, and some of the irreducible ambiguity you encounter in literary fiction. As for whether she is autobiographical in any way, my background is neither middle class nor unicultural, and I’m sure there is something of me in her.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
Don’t get me started on setting. I am obsessed with place and sense of place in fiction. All my narratives are set at least partly in Quebec and feature people deeply attached to their surroundings. If you want to read about the slick shenanigans of Chicago corporate lawyers, for example, give my books a miss. In fact, I’m a little surprised at the strength of my attachment to Canadian settings.
On the literary front, I invoke setting to create mood intensity and reinforce themes. In April on Paris Street, the action takes place in Paris and Montreal, the city of my birth. It’s a tale of two cities in multiple senses. I set out to mine what is mysterious and labyrinthine in cities. The city, in general terms, is represented as rife with divisions, uncanny, bounded by endlessly changing and secretive rivers. Ashley Smeeton and the reader find themselves in parts of the city where they’ve never set foot (some I even made up), where nothing is as it seems, where preconceptions fall by the wayside in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Montreal is especially important in the book and the most decisive events occur there. It’s a Montreal that will seem both familiar and strange to readers. I sought to capture its ambiguity-ridden identity. I wanted to give the reader the occasional Gothic shiver and at the same time send them in a spirit of inquiry to Google maps.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I undertook research into the Parisian Carnaval, especially in its earlier and medieval forms. The Parisian Carnaval, with its masks and inversions, is an organizing symbol for April on Paris Street and I wanted the charged atmosphere that detail brings.
Mainly, though, I stayed at cheap hotels in Paris in what cabbies kindly referred to as “quartiers populaires” and walked, walked, walked. And I live a fully francophone life in the east end of Montreal, where I also walk a lot. Basically, my whole life has consisted of exploring places off the beaten track, where I feel simultaneously a stranger and deeply at home. My heart sings when I find myself, like Ashley, in a strange part of a known place for the first time, with bonus points for an eerie sense of déjà vu. I haven’t tripped over any corpses yet though.
What if, anything, did you learn from writing this novel?
A gazillion things! Here are three though.
It takes a lot of writing to find your unique voice, so if you are an aspiring writer expect your writing to evolve and welcome this. My fourth (draft) book has gone on into magic realism crime, where I can more fully indulge my darkish humour and need to fabricate egregiously.
When you are mixing realistic and less realistic conventions as I do, you really have to find the sweet spot between the familiar/relatable and the literary, so that the reader or critic agrees to continue to suspend disbelief. For April on Paris Street, this has meant avoiding obvious disruptions in the realistic narrative, so that you can take or leave the symbolic level. Of course I weep salt tears when the reader entirely disregards the symbolic level, but some people just aren’t into that kind of thing.
My publisher, Michael Mirolla, really hates adverbs.
Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there, which surprised no one but her. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things best forgotten. Her well-received domestic mysteries, After the Winter and The Au Pair, feature evocative settings and uninhibited female revenge, with a seasoning of moral ambiguity and noir. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and domestic suspense.