“Survival of the Fistest” is a review of Darwin’s Nightmare, by Mike Knowles (ECW, 2008). It appeared in Driven in October 2008. My thanks go to Gary Butler, the editor, for asking me to do it and then editing it.
Crime writer Mike Knowles is a real-life Hamilton, Ont. elementary school teacher, and from the looks of his dust-jacket photo, we’re guessing the students don’t give him any trouble. Or the Principal.
Darwin’s Nightmare, Knowles’s first novel, is a violent noir set in Steeltown. How violent? Wilson, the narrator, shoots a grandmother. (But she shot him first.) (But he was beating up her grandson.)
Thief-slash-killer Wilson is employed by the city’s top gangster for jobs he doesn’t want his own people to do. The book starts with our anti-hero robbing a courier of a bag at the Hamilton airport. The owners naturally come looking for it, the Russian mob gets involved, and soon enough Wilson finds himself caught up in a gang feud.
The basic plot is too simple to sustain a novel, so Knowles uses flashbacks to pad it out and develop Wilson’s character. There is an unnecessary chapter about a bartender who refuses to pay protection and goes on a murderous rampage, and while Hamilton is a great setting for a story like this, the city isn’t as real as John McFetridge’s Toronto in Dirty Sweet.
Darwin’s Nightmare is a fast, tough story nevertheless, filled with gun battles, smashed teeth, and gang warfare. A new if not yet wholly original voice in Canadian noir is welcome and this is a good first novel, particularly as a counterweight to the often flaccid mysteries this country produces. Crime fans will enjoy the book and should watch for his next offering; ECW has him scheduled for follow-up releases in fall 2009 and 2010.