I read Giles Blunt’s first crime novel as the 9th book in my 13-book Canadian Book Challenge.
Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department worked the Katie Pine case as though she had been kidnapped and probably murdered even though everyone else thought she was a runaway. When her body is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft five months after her disappearance it falls to Cardinal to notify the thirteen year-old’s mother of her only child’s death.
The Inuit, it is said, have forty words for snow, Cardinal mused, what people really need is forty words for sorrow. Grief. Heartbreak. Desolation. These were not enough, not for this childless mother in her empty house.
This scene, which occurs near the beginning of the novel, is heart-wrenching and sets the tone for a sombre, sorrow-filled tale about missing teenagers, the police who must look for them and the people who took them.
A young boy had gone missing shortly after Katie Pine and Cardinal is convinced the two cases are related. After Katie’s body is found he and his new partner, Lise Delorme who has recently transferred to Homicide from Special Investigations, are allowed to spend time on the cases and they learn that Katie was alive and tortured for some time before she died. When they learn of a new victim, possibly still alive, the race is on to find the culprit. At the same time as all this is going on Delorme is tasked by her superiors with secretly investigating Cardinal who they suspected of having provided a known criminal with tip-offs and other valuable information.
The highlight of the novel is the characterisations, particularly of Cardinal. We learn a lot about his private life, including the fact that his wife is very ill which has led him, in the past, to make some bad choices in life. His sorrow relates to both his past actions and his current helplessness over his wife’s illness. At about the half-way point of the novel readers learn who has committed the crimes and from that point on we start to see action unfold from their point of view to contrast with the police investigation. It is not giving too much of a spoiler to say that there are two people involved with the killings and while we spend a deal of time with both I will remember one of the portraits in particular of the person so starved for affection that they will learn to kill for it.
Another standout element of Forty Words for Sorrow is the depiction of the small town and its surrounds. From the outset my head was full of images created using Blunt’s words, starting with the frozen body in its block of ice (not to mention the mechanics of extracting it). The depiction of the harsh, freezing far Northern winter with its frozen lakes you can literally drive a truck on (hard to imagine for someone who dwells on the edge of a desert), short days and houses impossible to heat is first rate.
In some ways I thought the mystery was the weakest element of the novel as there was a little too much unnecessary focus on the torture perpetrated by the killers for my liking. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was gratuitous but it hovered around that mark and some careful editing using the theory that readers will probably imagine what you don’t describe in detail would, I think, have made for a better story. Overall though the book has much to recommend it and this is one Canadian author whose other works I will be chasing up after my current reading challenge is complete. It’s probably not news to many that the reportedly large number of words that the Inuit have for snow is an urban myth but I still think it’s a great title for this book which is, ultimately, about all the different kinds of sorrow there are.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Harper Collins 
Length 425 pages
Format mass market paperback
Source I mooched it