Forty Words for Sorrow, by Giles Blunt (Vintage Canada edition, paperback, 2017, 326 pp. Originally published in hardcover by Random House Canada, 2000.)

I watched the final episode of the second season of Cardinal, based on the books by Giles Blunt, on Feb. 8, 2018, while firmly gripping the hand of my significant other and occasionally shouting warnings at the TV – as one does while watching good thrillers. Afterwards, grisly, bleak images kept popping up in my mind – a little island in an iced-up lake, blindingly white, a bus station swept with freezing rain at night, Cardinal desperately digging in the snow and getting so cold that his “knees were numb as wood”…and those corpses!

Blunt’s series of novels about “Detective John Cardinal” was published many years ago, but the adaptations of two of the books for TV in 2017 (Forty Words for Sorrow) and 2018 (Blackfly Season) has led to renewed appreciation of Blunt’s excellent work. Why read the books when you can just see the filmed versions? Because you can get a glimpse of the world of John Cardinal in the films, or you can get the full chilling, vivid immersion of the books.

Classic crime fiction, but with an idiosyncratic twist

Canadian Giles Blunt has been writing novels since 1989. The first novel in the John Cardinal Crime SeriesForty Words for Sorrow, won Blunt the British Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger, and the second, The Delicate Storm, won the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for best novel, as did the sixth, Until the Night.

I admit that, until the TV version aired, I had not heard of Blunt. I have found that Canada is rife with excellent artists and creators who are not celebrities. This was a fortuitous discovery. But this review is not about the TV series – it’s about the book, Forty Words for Sorrow, in which Cardinal’s world is established. Everything revolves around the communities and landscapes of the fictional town of “Algonquin Bay”.

“The forty-sixth parallel may not be all that far north; you can be much further north and still be in the United States, and even London, England, is a few degrees closer to the North Pole. But this is Ontario, Canada, we’re talking about, and Algonquin Bay in February is the very definition of winter: Algonquin Bay is snowbound, Algonquin Bay is quiet, Algonquin Bay is very, very cold.” (p. 1)

Yes, in very, very cold Algonquin Bay there are corpses in the snow, encased in ice, frozen solid in deserted houses, drowned in icy water. Algonquin Bay is the epitome of a hazardous landscape. Blunt grew up in the real town of North Bay, Ontario, and in the book as well as the TV series North Bay is the thinly disguised equivalent of the blindingly white and forbidding Algonquin Bay.

In this hazardous environment, where survival often depends on just getting out of the cold, there are cliques – the police, the biker gangs, the delinquents and runaways, the innocents, and, adding a special Canadian twist, First Nations (or Aboriginal) tribes on their reserves.

Blunt has a subtext, a discreet critique of Canadian socio-political systems, in his novels. The killer in Forty Words for Sorrow was allowed to fall between the cracks of the Canadian social welfare system. Someone should’ve picked up that up – but they didn’t.

Also, DCI Cardinal and his partner, French-English “Lise Delorme”, personify the historical and ongoing tensions between rebellious French-language Quebec Province and the rest of English-language Canada.

Another Canadian element in the book is the depiction of the First Nations people as both perpetrators and victims who have a pervasive distrust and sense of enduring injustice:

“The Inuit, it is said, have forty different words for snow. Never mind about snow, Cardinal mused, what people really need is forty words for sorrow. Grief. Heartbreak. Desolation. There were not enough, not for this childless mother in her empty house.” (p.34)

Crime fiction conventions

These subtexts, combined with highly competent and seamless expression of the conventions of the crime fiction genre (for instance plot, protagonists versus antagonists, crime, investigation, clues, violence, modus operandi, foreshadowing, false leads, etc.), and the authentically depicted settings, make these books superb reading. The details Blunt puts in, like where people shop, what they eat, how they get around and what they watch on TV are quintessentially, realistically Canadian and Ontarian. (I’ll never think of mix tapes and Ovation guitars again without also thinking of murder.)

“John Cardinal” is not as much of a lone wolf as “Kurt Wallander” for instance, or as inscrutable as “Gil Grissom” in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, or as despairingly miserable as “Tom Mathias” in Hinterland. He is rather endearingly a “Mensch”, flawed, burdened by some bad life choices, but sticking with his wife “Catherine” who has bipolar disorder. He is also a polite Canadian. He holds his tongue while, in his head, he is raving and ranting. 

Lise Delorme, played by Quebecer Karine Vanasse, is Cardinal’s foil, against whom and with whom his intuitively brilliant mind works overtime.  She is also smart,  and saves Cardinal’s life quite a few times by pitching up at the right moment.

“Delorme had a disturbing tendency to hold your gaze just a little too long, just a split second too long, with those earnest brown eyes. It was as if she’s slipped her hand inside your shirt. In short, Delorme was a terrible thing to do to a married man.” (p.2)

The interpretation of the novel for TV

I have seldom seen a book so faithfully interpreted for film. The film is almost a mirror image of the book. The characters in the film are identical to those in the book, from their looks (Cardinal’s height, Delorme’s big, dark eyes), to their clothes, their mannerisms, even the way they talk (Delorme’s final consonants disappearing and her sentences spouting double subjects). 

Blunt was co-executive producer of all six episodes of season 1 (2017), but I didn’t see him credited as one of the screenplay writers, or involved with season 2 (2018). While Blunt provided feedback on the first draft of every script in season 1, which was written by a large team of writers, he had no say on any of the final creative decisions:

“‘It’s nerve-wracking, because the books tell the stories as I think they should be told,’ he says. ‘But television is a different medium, and sometimes things need to be de-emphasized or occur in a different order for reasons that are extraneous to pure storytelling.’”

(Source: University of Toronto news brief,

While Blunt was reported to have had some pre-show nerves about how the story might have been changed in its translation to the screen, he is unreserved in his approval of the cast, and no wonder, since they are perfect fits for those roles. The producers cast William (Billy) Campbell as the tall, skinny protagonist, John Cardinal. He is a handsome American (despite his odd bumpy nose), but I didn’t notice anything strange about his “Canadian” accent. While in life he looks young and hunky, in the film he looks like a middle-aged man worn down by personal grief and the weight of the world’s evil. Campbell has lived and worked across Canada and owns property in British Columbia and says he feels “spiritually Canadian, maybe because I’ve been coming here since I was a young one.”

There is no way this series could have been as good as it is, without the book from which it came being as good, if not better. The source material in this case hardly needed to be changed. In fact, it was probably a matter of not fixing what isn’t broken. Since Blunt is an experienced TV screenplay writer, many of the scenes from the book looked as if they were transferred from book to screen with no extreme changes in emphases or the order of events.

Full-saturation Canadiana

Since the two creations are so close in content, structure and atmosphere – why bother to read the books at all?

  1. Firstly, while a third series has been commissioned, it’s not to say that all the books will be filmed, and so far, the film producers are not cutting and pasting content from one book to another. So, if you don’t read the books, you’ll miss out on some crucial character development. Cardinal is a complicated man, and Delorme has her own murky personal life.
  2. Secondly, regardless of how beautifully it is filmed, the books still provide a much more saturated depiction of this great not-very-far-north part of Canada.

You can get a glimpse of the world of John Cardinal, or you can get the full immersive experience – snow, ice, forests, lakes, blackflies, twisted killers and all, by reading the books.

The John Cardinal Crime Series

The original hardcover editions comprise Forty Words for Sorrow (2000), followed by:

International distribution

The first book that was filmed for TV is Forty Words for Sorrow, and the second is Blackfly Season. I don’t know why the production company eOne skipped The Delicate Season and went straight from book 1 to book 3. eOne has sold the series for distribution to Super Écran (Canadian French language version TV); BBC4 (UK – TV); Calle 13 Universal (Spain – TV); CraveTV (Canada – VOD); EntertainTV Serien (Germany – VOD); and Hulu (USA – VOD).

Cardinal season 1 preview – don’t worry, there are no spoilers


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