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Photo of Peggy Blair by Ryan Parent

Write On Ottawa: Peggy Blair and Cuba’s greatest police detective

By Alejandro Bustos on April 21, 2013

Ottawa is filled with fabulous authors. To showcase our city’s great literary talent, today we begin a new series in which we speak to writers from the National Capital Region.

Ricardo Ramirez, the police inspector in charge of the Havana Major Crimes Unit, can see dead people. Yet again, his ability to interact with the ghosts of murdered victims may be nothing more than a mental disease, perhaps even the same one that killed his grandmother.

Amidst this personal anguish inside the head of a Cuban detective, a Canadian police officer from Ottawa on vacation in Havana is arrested for the rape and murder of a young boy. From this captivating beginning, local mystery writer Peggy Blair opens her fascinating debut novel The Beggar’s Opera, which tells the story of what is arguably Cuba’s greatest fictional police inspector.

The sequel The Poisoned Pawn, released this past February, continues the highly complex plot, which encompasses Canada-Cuba relations, an international criminal ring with links to the Vatican, and images from the streets of Ottawa that residents often ignore.

The idea for the books stem from a trip that Blair took to Havana in December 2006 with her daughter.  Having just left a 30-year legal career, which included working in the heart wrenching residential school process, she was in a period of transition.

Photo of Peggy Blair by Ryan Parent

Photo of Peggy Blair by Ryan Parent

“I was trying at the time to decide what to do next,” Blair tells me in a phone interview. “It was at this time that my daughter came home from McGill and said, ‘Mom you can’t just sit around.’”

Moved by her daughter’s words, as well as her trip to Old Havana in Christmas of 2006, Blair came up with the idea of writing a mystery set in Cuba. While she had never written fiction before, she did have many years of experience working as a criminal defence lawyer and a Crown prosecutor.

Blair’s literary efforts have resulted in some unforgettable characters. There is Inspector Ramirez, a first-class detective who sees the ghosts of murdered people. In addition to solving crimes, he has to deal with the shortages facing Cuba, such as the lack of fuel for police vehicles.

Then there is Hector Apiro, a brilliant pathologist and one of Cuba’s top plastic surgeons who suffers from dwarfism. His small physical stature hides his genius mind and deep compassion.

“I see Apiro as the moral compass of the books,” says Blair. “You know those stickers that say, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Well, ‘what would Apiro do?'”

I completely agree with Blair’s assessment, as I always found myself siding with Apiro, even in the second book when … well, you will have to read the novel to find out.

Then there is Charlie Pike from the second book, an aboriginal police officer who started as a beat cop on the streets of Winnipeg, and who escorts Ramirez during his trip to Canada. (The first book takes place in Havana, the second in Ottawa). Pike and Ramirez talk a lot about the horrific effects of Canada’s residential schools, a subject that Blair knows very well due her work in aboriginal law, and which plays a central role in the plot.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Blair

Photo courtesy of Peggy Blair

Combine these characters with a cop accused of murder, malevolent priests, a kind hearted Ottawa police chief, a failed marriage and the death of a police officer in Ottawa, and you have the script for a soap opera. Thanks to Blair’s excellent writing and attention to detail, however, the books turn out to be page turners rather than a cheesy telenovela.

“You have these characters who are grounded in fact, because you have to or else it is not believable,” says Blair.

Inevitably, people reading the books will compare them to present day Cuba. Blair quickly points out, however, that she only went to Cuba once, and that the story is set during the holiday season in late-2006 and early-2007.

“The books are in a very tight time frame,” she says. “I had one reader who just contacted me about (the books saying that) Cubans cannot go into tourist restaurants and that is just not true,” says Blair. “But it was true from 2006 to 2009.”

She also says that she has no plans to return to Cuba. “I will forget what it was like if I went back,” she says.

If you want to see Blair speak, she will be participating in the Criminally Great Writing event at the Ottawa Writers Festival that is taking place Sunday, April 28, at 8:30 pm at Knox Presbyterian Church at 120 Lisgar Street (at Elgin).  Tickets are $10 to $15.

You can follow Blair on her blog, author website, on her twitter account, and her Facebook page.