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New B.C. crime novel paints dark portrait of small-city life

Sam Wiebe's Ocean Drive is a hard-boiled narrative of gang warfare, violence and murder
Ocean Drive author Sam Wiebe says while his crime novels are intended as entertainment, he does like to reflect the social realities of the Greater Vancouver area.

Sam Wiebe has no claim to be a prophet of doom for White Rock. 

And although his crime novel Ocean Drive (Harbour Publishing, 2024) is set here – and offers a darker view of ‘Our City by the Sea’ than civic boosters might care for – it should be understood the type of violence he describes is vastly dissimilar to this April’s tragic stabbing incidents on the waterfront. 

As Wiebe, author of the popular Vancouver-set Wakeland series of private detective novels, is quick to affirm, “It’s a work of fiction – just entertainment.” 

But he is writing from a standpoint of personal knowledge, he acknowledges. Although now a resident of New Westminster, Wiebe grew up in White Rock and attended Semiahmoo Secondary. 

“I graduated in 2000,” he said. 

“My mom still lives here, so I’m out here quite a lot,” he added, while noting that, observing the current vista of highrises whenever he ventures across North Bluff Road, he’s always struck by how much the city has changed since it was his regular stamping ground. 

Meeting recently for coffee at White Rock’s iconic Five Corners Cafe, Wiebe, a large but gentle man casually attired in slacks and plaid shirt, turns out to be far less imposing in person than his brooding author head shots might suggest – or his Toronto Star description, quoted on the back cover of Ocean Drive, as “Vancouver’s terse poet of a city in decline.” 

“That’s flattering, of course,” the soft-spoken writer admitted, while being quick to acknowledge that such characterizations have never prompted him to adopt a James Ellroy-like tough guy persona to promote his brand. 

It’s a brand that’s doing very well, thank you, for the prolific Wiebe, whose most recent Wakeland novel, Sunset and Jericho, was shortlisted for the 2024 Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing, and who is developing a growing following south of the border which is seeing him in demand for such events as the Left Coast Crime mystery convention in Seattle. 

“I’m just an ordinary guy who has a cat and drives a Civic,” he said, adding that he and his wife Carly – an aficionado of classic pulp fiction – live a life of mostly quiet domesticity with said feline, a female named Ennio, who Wiebe describes, turning proud cat parent, as “a masked tabby with snow paws and a white bib."

The author said that while it’s likely that Carly has read more of the classic historic detective novels than he has – “she’s always recommending I read this and that” – he does acknowledge familiarity with such masters as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. 

“When I was growing up, my parents had a complete set of John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee novels, and there were Hammett books like Red Harvest and The Thin Man lying around. I think those were the first adult novels I read.” 

While these classics have undoubtedly been an influence on him, Wiebe said, he has had no desire to emulate their style by writing period pieces. 

Instead he has specialized in being a keen observer of the street-level language and sensibilities of the present day – and incorporating them in his writing in a very relatable way that has resonated with a growing legion of fans across Canada and in the U.S. 

“With the Wakeland novels, the ‘voice’ is the strongest part of my private eye. And I felt that I didn’t want my characters walking around and speaking like gun molls and hep cats of the ’40s,” he said. 

Perhaps the strongest link he has to the crime and mystery traditions is in being an interpreter of his own city landscape, just as Chandler has been identified with Los Angeles, in a much later era, Ian Rankin with Edinburgh. 

It’s evident, and Wiebe freely admits, that his interest – more than posing intricate whodunnit puzzles or revelling in scenes of violence just for their own sake – is exploring the social realities of his subject communities and the notion of dark things happening in places that can seem very nice on the surface. 

So it is with Ocean Drive, in which Wiebe explores the very real potential for violence in the White Rock and South Surrey community, due to gang warfare in the illicit drug trade. 

Anyone who has any doubts about the real-life impact of such crime only has to run a brief search for news stories of shooting incidents in the area over the last few years, Wiebe noted.

He cited, in particular, the recent incident – captured in security camera footage – of semi-automatic gunfire sprayed at vans in the driveway of a house on Roper Avenue in the early morning of Feb. 22, which left four people wounded.

In Wiebe's compelling, hard-boiled narrative, 29-year-old Cameron Shaw has been paroled after serving seven years for the manslaughter of wealthy White Rock resident Roger Garrick. Cameron, through his uncle, had been doing casual handyman work for Garrick but snapped when the older man, drunk and spouting accusations, physically attacked him, with a steel trim guard used for painting.

The beating death of Garrick – in front of the man’s pregnant wife, Liz – has given Cameron an unenviable reputation for violence that he struggles to live down, and his jail time has obviously scarred him on the inside.

An unexpected, but hard to decline, job offer brings him back into the orbit of criminal associates, drawing him into a twilight world of ambitious gang members jockeying for position – in Wiebe's fiction the 'Heaven's Exiles' motorcycle gang, the related 'League of Nations' and the rival 'Vipers' – and a series of drug-smuggling conspiracies, and rip-offs, that threaten not only his freedom, but his life.

Among intriguing characters he encounters are flirtatious but hard-nosed Sukhi Kaur, sister of a League of Nations drug dealer, but with other more powerful connections that put her close to the heart of the criminal milieu.  

At the same time, RCMP Staff Sgt. Meghan Quick – White Rock detachment commander – is struggling to trace the full ramifications, and true culpability, in the murder-by-arson of recently orphaned college student Alexa Reed.

As with all such tales, appearances are deceptive and seemingly unconnected incidents are manifestations of deeper, and darker connections. And for Quick, what she discovers during the investigation shatters her previously comfortable notions of her community.

What, for example, are the true roles of Liz Garrick, an increasingly influential woman among the movers and shakers of the community, and Bob Sutter, retired detachment commander and now a White Rock council member, both of whom are involved in a controversial casino development proposal?  

Longtime Semiahmoo Peninsula residents may quibble over some geographical anomalies in Wiebe's story, while others may point out that in the real world of police investigation – rather than one officer, like Quick, being saddled with the responsibility of solving a series of murders – the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) would soon take over the reins of such a complex case.

But this is fiction, after all, and Wiebe does get a lot of things right. The fact, for instance, that – aside from opportunistic petty offences – entrenched crime in White Rock and South Surrey is not simply about the influx of new money, and new immigrants, to the area, but also about the ways that longtime residents have accommodated, and turned a blind eye to criminal groups and enterprises, even back when it was a far simpler and less populous community.

And that alone should make Ocean Drive a fascinating, and provocative, read for many locals.        


Alex Browne

About the Author: Alex Browne

Alex Browne is a longtime reporter for the Peace Arch News, with particular expertise in arts and entertainment reporting and theatre and music reviews.
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