David Adams Richards,
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul
Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011

304 pages

Incidents is a profound and remarkable novel. Ostensibly, it is a murder mystery in which the title character, a Mi’kmaq RCMP officer named Markus Paul, seeks to unravel the truth behind a mysterious death that has remained unsolved for more than 20 years. The story weaves back and forth through time as Markus struggles to discover who actually caused the death of a teenage Mi’kmaq boy in the hold of a ship loading pulpwood on the Miramichi River. This event set off a cascade of events beginning with the wrongful accusation against a non-Aboriginal man, Roger Savage; it climaxed with a blockade and further tragedy in the community.

This murder mystery serves as a lens through which David Adams Richards illuminates complex contemporary issues: the lingering effects of colonization, band council governance, systemic racism and the invidious nature of prejudice. A masterful storyteller, Richards has created a narrative that confronts what is arguably the most pressing sociopolitical issue in Canada today – the tenuous nature of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.

Often labelled a regional writer, Richards is better described as a modern-day Dickens or Tolstoy. Like them, he creates nuanced and complex characters through whom the reader is obliged to grapple with major themes common to human experience. Like the best 19th-century realist writers, Richards has a deep understanding of place. So much so that the Miramichi Valley becomes almost another character in the novel. His characters are shaped by the Miramichi; however, his weaving of universal themes into the story allows him to escape the boundaries that limit parochial authors.

One such theme is seen through Markus Paul’s reflection on C.S. Lewis’s notion of the “Inner Ring,” the idea that all human beings struggle to be accepted as part of a community, whether it be the workplace, school or reserve. The desire to be included can warp judgement and compel us to decisions that we would not make otherwise. Throughout the novel, the fear of exclusion drives the characters. Some characters withstand this pressure; they suffer from isolation as a result. Markus Paul’s grandfather, Chief Amos Paul, resists the pressure from other members of the reserve to accuse Roger Savage as the murderer. Amos Paul’s decision to search for the truth leads to his being ostracized and isolated within his reserve community. His choice resonates within his grandson, and Markus is driven to discover the truth behind the murder.

In their desire for social acceptance, other characters do not resist the pressure to conform. Max Doran, an ambitious young journalist, accepts the band consensus that Roger Savage was guilty. That, plus careerism, leads him to distort the story surrounding the murder. By focusing on the choices made by individual characters, Richards frustrates the reader’s expectations of who are good, who are not. Richards has created a novel that effectively illustrates the idea that all human beings, regardless of race or other constraints on our lives, have the capacity to exercise agency.

The idea of individual agency permeates the novel. Richards is preoccupied with how his characters navigate the consequences of their actions: “It is not the Conibear trap that kills the beaver, but the drowning that follows.” Individual integrity and character are tested throughout the novel. And the characters found wanting suffer the consequences of their actions. This sounds bleak. However, another universalist theme resonates throughout the novel – the idea of redemption.

Several of the characters who have made poor choices are offered a second chance. Once he has discovered the truth behind the murder, Markus Paul offers Max Doran an opportunity to write, to cure his writer’s block and redeem his career. For the former journalist, this olive branch is an opportunity to set his life on a new track. Markus’s offer is a window into a greater theme. This opportunity for redemption, offered by an Aboriginal man, signals an opportunity for healing the centuries of broken trust between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Canada. The first step to healing a broken relationship is recognition by one party that it has wronged another. Only then can redemption be offered, sins forgiven and a new relationship forged.

At one level, Incidents is a simple story of one man’s search for truth about an unsolved murder. However, on another level, it is a masterful novelist’s exploration of the unwieldy, often fraught, relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. Tolstoy wrote that truth can be found in fiction. David Adams Richards has created a novel that speaks truth.