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Write On Ottawa: Hard-boiled comedy in McGinnis’s Stark Nakid

By Joseph Hutt on January 11, 2016

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Joseph Hutt is a freelance writer and editor in Ottawa, and a radio host on CKCU. You can find links to his various endeavours on his website, at www.cuppajoebooks.com.

Stark Nakid, Sean McGinnis‘s debut novel released by Aylmer-based Deux Voiliers Publishing, starts off just like any other hard-boiled detective story: with murder…

That being said, Sam Spade never had to solve a case of “death by baby grand piano,” but that’s the trouble our eponymous flatfoot finds himself embroiled in.

Despite questionable investigative methods (and an even more questionable fighting style), detective Stark Nakid quickly comes to realize that there is something going on his small town of Nelson, BC. Something much more sinister than—but just as surprising as—the number of free hugs and casual sexual advances that you can expect while strolling down any given street in this town.

Together with his sometimes partner Zuzu von Trapp, he traces this mystery to a shipwreck on the Kootenay Lake 100 years earlier, all the while facing off against a wide variety of villains, from Canadian gangsters to Yakuza thugs to Nakid’s own Moriarty-esque nemesis, Jesus McMurphy.

Author Sean McGinnis, from his website.

Author Sean McGinnis, from his website.

If nothing else, you really have to get a kick out of the names that McGinnis has come up with. From the businesses to Nakid’s combative tai chi stances to the people, these names are filled with ridiculous rhymes and animal puns: the Sneaky Tiki Cocktail Lunge, Ground Squirrel Gathers Nuts, Dr. Svetlana Bon Voyage.

While the book itself is hard to describe, Stark Nakid is most easily compared to the classic Pink Panther movies, with Peter Sellers as the inept Inspector Clouseau, but it’s a lot more than that as well. Throw in a bit of Austin Powers,  some 80’s Kung-Fu movies, and you’re probably a bit closer to the mark.

It even takes on the trappings of the locked-room mystery at the very end, when it’s time for Nakid’s former teacher, Sherlock Holmes (a brilliant Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiast), to reveal the denouement.

Perhaps one of my favourite segments of the book are those concerning the Vallican Hole School of Stealth, where Nakid learned his many “skills” as a private eye, as its descriptions gave me the impression of a blend between Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University and Lemony Snicket’s V.F.D..

However, with all of these things going on at once, the novel develops a kind of frenetic comic energy. It’s entertaining, but it’s also a bit exhausting. For the first third of McGinnis’s book, the comedy is nonstop, and while I was certainly laughing, I would literally have to put the book down every chapter or so to enjoy a breath of melancholy.

However, this consistency is eventually broken up when McGinnis begins to introduce flashbacks from some of his characters lives, as well as an episodic account of the wreck of The City of Ainsworth. These segments, while far from serious, effectively introduce mellower tones to the story, adding balance and dynamic to what started off as a single comedic high note. It was here that I truly got into the story.

It’s also a pleasant surprise to see how much McGinnis borrows from reality. The City of Ainsworth was an actual sternwheeler that sank on Kootenay Lake in 1898. Nakid’s home on 221 Baker Street (one floor beneath S. Holmes and Dr. Watson) is, surprisingly, an actual address in Nelson, BC. And there are a few other Easter eggs like this besides.

When I asked McGinnis about these little nods, he said he’d been inspired by an historical account of the sinking of the Ainsworth, by the two unnamed Italians who had been aboard in particular.

“I wondered about who the two unidentified victims might have been,” McGinnis explained, “and thought it could make the basis for the plot.”

As for Nelson itself:

“Nelson is such a colourful community that I wanted to set the novel here (changing business names to protect the innocent) rather than make up a fictional town. I have taken an absurdist view but there is a little bit of truth in almost everything in the book.”

While a book like Stark Nakid doesn’t really require this kind of authenticity, it’s still interesting to see it interact with reality in this way. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there were a number of jokes in this book that only Nelson locals would be able to pick up on.

If you’re a person who feels that the mystery novel is a sacred genre, this may not be the book for you. I recommend Stark Nakid to anyone who is looking for a book that isn’t afraid of being ridiculous and is willing to poke fun at anything and everything. However, if you think this may be the perfect book for a younger niece or nephew, just be aware that many parts of this book are highly sexualized.

Stark Nakid is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing, and is available at local bookstores, or from one of the online sellers listed by the publisher,. You can also follow author Sean McGinnis on Twitter.

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