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Makenzi Fisk writes a crime thriller with a genuine Northern small-town feel

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Makenzi Fisk writes a crime thriller with a genuine Northern small-town feel

Mark Twain’s famous advice to writers (“Write what you know”) came to mind as I read Just Intuition, the first novel by former Progress carrier Makenzi Fisk.

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No, there isn’t a small town newspaper to be found anywhere in this well-constructed thriller, but there is much any Atikokanite will relate to. And when I learned Fisk (that’s a pen name, by the way – I’ll leave it to readers to speculate on the name she carried through the halls of AHS) had spent many years as a police officer in southern Alberta, I understood why she had chosen to write a crime novel.

The story is set in a small town in northern Minnesota, where the wilderness (one very similar to ours) is part and parcel of daily life. A house fire kills a local woman, and Officer Erin Ericsson doesn’t believe it was accidental.

Ericsson has deep roots in the small town, where ‘everybody knows everybody’. When it comes to police work, that has its advantages and its disadvantages, and Fisk does a terrific job illustrating how that works. (So often in novels, small towns are depicted as terribly limiting places. Fisk, to her credit, delivers the real goods.)

Her life partner Allie, who is new to the area, adds an extra element to the story. She is, as my grandmother used to say, “a little bit fey” – has something of second sight.

In a less capable writer’s hands, this might have tipped the story into hokum for me. But Fisk has handled the whole business with a subtle, sure hand. Allie doesn’t have visions in the sense that she sees crimes occurring; instead she has deep emotional responses to people (and animals – they play a big part in the story) and troubling dreams. And this is a part of her nature she has never really explored.

Fisk uses Allie’s ‘gift’ to draw out some of her personal history (although she is the city girl in this setting, Allie is of First Nation heritage, and grew up in foster homes), and the still developing relationship with Erin.

Particularly compelling are the scenes set in the wilderness. There are some back road explorations and a somewhat spontaneous canoeing adventure, in which Fisk vividly captures outdoor trekking in this part of the world.

The story is mostly told from Erin’s perspective, but the author has populated the novel with small-town characters, and is able, in just a paragraph or two, to sketch those characters in a way that gives the reader a strong sense of who they are and what they are about. If you’ve spent much time in Atikokan, you’ll recognize them.

The crimes, and the identification of (and hunt for) the killer are well paced and plotted with enough intricacy to satisfy thriller fans. There are a few false trails that have to be sorted through, and the usual police station politics to deal with. What makes the story shine, though, is the character work – Fisk has the gift for bringing people on the page to life.

The author

“We lived in Atikokan until 1979, and moved right in the middle of my high school years,” Fisk said last week. “I was really disappointed when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do Outers. [Years later] I did get to do a canoe trip in Quetico. A church group needed a counsellor, so I signed on and got to do a week in the Park.”

“The Park naturalist [Shan Walshe] was with us, and he was just wonderful. He knew all the names of the plants, showed us how to find mint [which made it into this book], pointed out a floating bog [also in the book], and took us to some pictographs. He was great.”

“And the best Northern Lights I’ve ever experienced were in Quetico. It wasn’t until that trip that I discovered they have a sound, too… they crackle.”

Fisk’s father, an avid hunter and angler, still comes back to NWO every year; Fisk says he didn’t want to leave, but once the mines closed “there just weren’t any jobs there”. She, too, is in the area occasionally, including earlier this summer, and is considering establishing a summer writing home here.

“And everywhere I go, there’s Atikokan,” she said. “That’s what I like about my home town, all these connections I make with people, wherever I go.”

After hanging up the badge, Fisk went into business for herself as a graphic design and internet consultant, and that, too, works its way into the story (Allie’s work). But story-telling has been central to her life as long as she can remember, so the decision to write was a natural one.

“I grew up walking around with my nose in a book; I was that kid who by grade six had read every book in the library. And Dad had a big collection of stories he’d tell the kids, and I started telling stories to my younger siblings…”

Where did the second sight thing come from?

“I think there is a tiny thread of that in just about every family… the uncle who knew when someone was going to have a baby, the great aunt who knew when someone was sick or had passed away. I just said: what if  that were something a little bigger?”

Fisk digs into her memory to create believable characters. And while her years of policing were great for that (“If you look past first impressions, everyone has a great story.”), her formative years in Atikokan have also proved a rich source.

“You form the most vivid memories in childhood,” she said. “As a child, you don’t fully understand [adult] motivations, but you do see so much. And Atikokan was prime for that… so many quirky characters.”

“All my characters are a little piece of this person, a little of that person… It’s exciting to write fiction, to just let my creative side go.”

She has a second novel featuring Erin and Allie in the works, and is aiming for publication in time for Christmas. Visit www.makenzifisk.com for more on Just Intuition.

 

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