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Jack Batten: Crang heads to Paris, and details matter


While last-minute gift givers race around town, Toronto author Jack Batten is busy preparing for a three-month sojourn to Paris with his wife, gardening expert Marjorie Harris. While they’ll be taking in the City of Light’s attractions, Batten has an ulterior motive for the trip: he’s looking for the perfect place to commit a crime. “I don’t know France well enough to kill someone there,” he says.

Batten, a former lawyer and author of 40 books, isn’t planning anything nefarious. He’s plotting out the next two books in his popular Crang Mystery series, which follows the hard-boiled antics of a Toronto criminal lawyer turned private investigator. In the first seven instalments, Crang uncovers the city’s seedy underbelly, encountering gangsters and porn operations, grow-ops and drug smugglers. In his latest, Booking In, Crang gets entangled in an unlikely crime when a rare forged first edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, owned by the richest woman in Canada, is stolen from a curmudgeonly antiquarian bookseller’s safe.

The inspiration for Booking In came to Batten nearly a decade ago from his friend Richard Landon, the long-time director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, who died in 2011. Landon regaled Batten with stories of two Victorian-era master forgers, who got away for years recreating first-edition publications by well-known, deceased authors, including Browning.

“I thought that’s a great idea, but how the hell do I get it into a book? It look a long time to figure out a plot that could reach back to include everything that Richard was telling me, but it worked,” says Batten.

To ensure that the nuances and atmosphere of Booking In rang true, Batten called upon another pal, David Mason, whose downtown Toronto shop has been a go-to for antiquarian collectors for 50 years. As a lifelong Torontonian who grew up in the picturesque Forest Hill neighbourhood, Batten knows many of the city’s hidden gems, some of which appear in his books as passing mentions. Although the city in many ways is unrecognizable from when Batten started the series in the late 1980s, he still finds locales that inspire, such as Faema Caffè, a renovated old Ford assembly plant where Crang and his girlfriend, Annie, hang out. “I try to be careful to bring it into places that are going to be there for a bit and are established,” Batten says. “I want it to be recognizably Toronto and reflect the changes in the city.”

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It’s not just physical landmarks from Batten’s own life that make their way into Crang’s world. Both men are obsessed with American jazz pianist Bill Evans — the second Crang novel, Straight No Chaser, involves a missing tenor saxophone — and prefer their vodka martinis straight up with a twist. Even Crang’s girlfriend, the intelligent garden-obsessed Annie, is modelled after Batten’s wife, Marjorie. The parallels ground Crang and Annie as characters, even while encountering the city’s fictional dark side.

“I do take chances in a way, but all the crucial background is based on facts,” says Batten. “But then I toss in improvisations and more unlikely things, and I just hope that in writing the made-up, I don’t trample all over the real factual stuff.”

Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire.


TORONTO STAR