It all started in the classroom. Before he became an award-winning novelist, Garry Ryan spent more than 30 years teaching English and creative writing in Calgary schools, encouraging his young students to write.
“I was asking kids to write and take risks. It just seemed wrong that I was taking the safe route and they weren’t. So it started with us sharing our writing,” Ryan says.
This fall, Ryan’s fifth novel, Malabarista, was published by Edmonton-based NeWest Press. It is the latest entry in his Detective Lane series — a set of mystery novels built around the character of a gay Calgary homicide detective.
Paul Matwychuk, general manager of NeWest, says Ryan is one of the publishing company’s best-selling authors.
“He has the model that seems to work for a lot of mystery writers. He is prolific and publishes on a regular basis. I think with each new book he is gathering up new readers.”
Photo Courtesy of Karma Towers
Ryan admits that as a mystery writer he has had to deal with the fact that the genre tends to be dismissed as not worthy of critical attention.
Sharon Smulders, an associate professor of English at Mount Royal University, agrees that mystery novels have historically struggled to gain their due.
“It’s a generalization that certainly doesn’t always hold true, but a lot of the material is plot driven and formulaic,” she says.
“But the fact is that those writers who are very successful have overcome the deficient of the form. So there can be a fair amount of heft and weight to what is going on in crime and mystery fiction.”
Who is Detective Lane?
Detective Lane was first introduced to readers in Ryan’s first novel, “Queen’s Park,” which was published in 2004.
Ryan says that rather than five separate works, he sees the series as “one big long book,” and that has contributed to its longevity.
“I started looking at how at the end of a book, the character’s life goes on. I wanted to carry on writing. I just got interested in Lane and his character and as I wrote them, other characters started coming in.”
“As you get to know him, you see that he has been excommunicated from his family and his community. He is gradually accumulating a family of his own,” says Ryan.
Ryan says the idea for the character’s journey toward finding a family of his own sprang in part from his personal experiences as a teacher.
“It came partly from my own experiences, but also from when I worked in a particular high school in Calgary. I kept running into grandparents who were raising their grandchildren because the parents had thrown them away. “
“This whole idea of throw-away kids, what happens to them and how they find a sense of family helped shape the character of Lane.”
Ryan says at heart Detective Lane is just “an ordinary guy.”
“I am looking at what drives Lane, in particular, and what he is looking for when he works on cases. There is also the idea that it’s hard to leave your work behind when you go home, and it’s hard to leave your home life when you go off to work.”
Unique character of Calgary provides settings
Ryan says he was drawn to writing crime and mystery fiction through his own reading interest in the genre.
“I like the way I can travel with it. By reading mystery novels, I can go to Sweden or South Africa or Venice. I just like that whole idea of going to these places and getting immersed in the culture.”
“Murder is a very social issue. I feel I can get an idea of how a certain culture works within a specific city or country by reading about it.”
Ryan says he eventually began looking at his own environment in Calgary as an inspiration for his writing.
Malabarista, which starts off with a body found in a slough on the northwest edge of Calgary, imparts its readers with a great sense of the locale. Calgary’s quirks and character — its neighbourhoods, roads, and coffee shops — come alive in all five of Ryan’s novels.
“I was born here and then I lived away for a few years and then I came back. When I came back, I saw it through different eyes. I think Calgary is just a little bit unique in terms of its character.
“When I go to New York or Victoria or Red Deer, each city has a slightly different character. I try to get that across because I know I really enjoy it when other writers do that.”
Photo by Karry Taylor
Keeping the series fresh
Ryan says he has kept the series interesting for his readers by introducing new characters and plotlines and, of course, more murder cases for Detective Lane to solve.
“New characters arrive, ones I haven’t expected. I think they keep it fresh. They just arrive on the page and it’s exciting for me. Hopefully it’s exciting for the readers.
“It’s a new case each time. You get to see the characters moving on with what happens to them, and how their lives and relationships change and how life gets more and more complicated,” Ryan says.
Ryan’s work has received several nominations and awards, including a Calgary Freedom of Expression Award and a Lambda Literary Award.
The Lambda awards are given annually by the U.S. based Lambda Literary Foundation in recognition of works that celebrate or explore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes.
Ryan says that while the awards have been “an honour,” he also believes that they come with a certain level of responsibility.
“I think of being able to express yourself and then the responsibility that comes with that, and the fact that there are people who would rather you didn’t say what you think.”
Ryan notes while it has been “subtle,” there has been a certain backlash against the fact that his leading character is gay.
“It’s just little things that people do, such as when they pick up your book and notice it’s about a gay character and then put it down.
“It reinforces to me that we have a ways to go before we have real human rights and civil rights equality within our society,” he says.