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Write On Ottawa: Campy detective yarn tackles #MMIW

By Kelly Reid on March 30, 2016

Carl Faehrmann self-published his debut novel, One little, Two Little, Three Little Indians, in the spring of 2015. The story follows Ottawa police detective Joe Donnelly as he chases down a serial killer targeting young Indigenous women. As he pieces together a historical connection that all the women share, he becomes exposed to Canada’s legacy of abuse against Indigenous communities. The novel often grapples with the cognitive dissonance Donnelly experiences when he compares his so-called “tolerant” and “progressive” Canada with the realities of colonialism. Before reviewing, I have to acknowledge my own privilege writing about these issues from a settler perspective and not as an Indigenous woman with lived experience.

Three Little IndiansCertainly, I have to give Faehrmann credit for engaging with issues of violence against Indigenous women. Further, he provides links to resources at the end of his novel, including the sites for Idle No More, the Am I Next movement, and other advocacy groups, allowing readers to have access to the voices of survivors. And his detective story, though it often indulges in clichés and overwrought inner monologue, steadily builds tension and becomes downright suspenseful towards the climax.

Sure, there are technical problems. The exposition is often clumsy; there’s a completely pointless subplot about the detective’s mother having a run-in with the law; Faehrmann reuses his pet phrases so many times that they become meaningless; awkward mixed metaphors abound (“don’t judge a person by the cover” and “weave your magic,” for instance); and there are issues with redundant language use (Faehrmann many times says something “permeates throughout” a space, though “permeates” already implies that it is “throughout”).

These are issues that a talented editor could virtually eliminate from the novel, and are actually not my main gripe with the book. Rather, I take issue with the way the novel tackles the subject of #MMIW. First of all, the very real problem of violence against Indigenous women is reduced to what can only be described as a pulpy noir tale. There’s even an informant that goes by the code name of “Hudson Bay.” I didn’t find that the genre gave the subject matter the seriousness that it’s due.

Further, all of the victims in the book share something in common (which I won’t spoil), which suggests that Indigenous women all have some kind of shared experience that subjects them to violence. This simply isn’t true and does a disservice to victims and their families. The novel doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that the problem of #MMIW is not a matter of one perpetrator, one residential school, or one lived experience.

Indigenous women are subject to violence because of a complex matrix of systemic reasons that Faehrmann barely touches upon. Further, his novel refers to the perpetrator (it’s the same killer throughout, another non-reality) as a “bastard,” or a “monster,” or a “butcher,” or a “psychopath” so many times that I lost count of what I highlighted. So much repetitious language serves to dehumanize the killer.

I understand the hyperbole that Faehrmann strives for, but he actually unintentionally makes the perpetrator a complete one-off, a fringe member of society. The reality is that Indigenous women are harmed by perpetrators of all sorts: family members, friends, co-workers, johns, spouses, people with mortgages and children and “normal” lives. It’s not just sociopaths that do harm to women, and Faehrmann’s insistence on this othering language became completely fatiguing by the novel’s end.

I also have to take issue with how sanitized Faehrmann’s story is in terms of the harm done to the victims. None of the three Indigenous women that die in the novel are subjected to any sexual violence by their killer. In truth, violence against Indigenous women is often sexualized. In 2002, the rate of sexual assault in Nunavut was nearly ten times that of Canada overall. While the novel does touch upon sexual violence in residential schools, it makes sexual violence seem like a problem of the past rather than of the present.

Further, Faerhmann’s treatment of Indigenous folks is rarely nuanced. He refers to them all as “Aboriginal,” and makes no attempt at tribal or band specificity for any of the victims. All of the Indigenous characters are skeptical of the government; each of the victims has missing or unfit parents in some way; two victims even have tattoos that downright proclaim their indigeneity (as, I suppose, Faehrmann felt it was the easiest way to make them visually “Aboriginal” immediately).

Still, I hate to criticize Faehrmann too harshly. For anyone completely unversed in Indigenous and Canadian history (as, somehow, the main character detective in 2015 seems to be), the novel would provide a very cursory introduction to residential schools, cultural genocide, and some of the lived realities of Indigenous survivors. I encourage Faehrmann to continue engaging with these issues, hopefully in the future with a greater sense of nuance, humility, and his own privilege to be speaking on behalf of #MMIW.

The book is available here.