When I read Denis Coupal’s thriller Blindshot, my overall impression of it was of competence – he had done all the right things, yet, when reading it, I didn’t exactly break out in a sweat. But what he did manage, and this takes some doing, was to make me read it in three hours straight, from 10 pm on page 1, to 1 am the next morning on page 341. I kept wanting to put it down and yet I kept turning over the pages, and then it was one in the morning and I had reached the last page – and then he managed to drop the last line that was a complete surprise. So, what is it that makes his writing unputdownable?
What makes a thriller?
Writing thrillers requires specific competencies. Competency may seem a dull concept. But imagine having an incompetent surgeon or engineer work on you or for you. You wouldn’t want that. Competency means the ability to do something perfectly right. In the thriller genre there’s no room for mixed up time lines, plot holes, or breaks in the story arc. A thriller that has too much romance or features that are typical of another genre just doesn’t have as much punch as a straight-to-the-gut, hang-on-to-your-seat pure thriller. Thrillers are about crime and its repercussions. To keep things thrilling, the writer has to create a sustained sense of dread, horror or fear in the reader, who is vicariously experiencing what the characters – usually the victims or detectives – are feeling. (In the case of Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, he turns this approach on its head by making the main character both a cop and a bad guy.)
With Blindshot, Coupal convincingly demonstrates his competence in writing for this genre – and this is his debut novel, would you believe it.
Coupal stuck to the formula for thrillers and added two distinctive elements: – one is that it is set in Canada, in Québec or Quebec as we Western Canadians spell it. The other is that it starts with someone getting shot and develops into one of those scenarios you read about in the papers a lot lately; tech-savvy, online gaming-obsessed teenagers get an idea for vengeance into their heads and guns into their hands. And the results are almost predictable.
The title is a common golf term for a shot where golfer is unable to see the target, or a shot from the fairway where the green is not visible. But that’s where the connection to golf ends. This is about a death at a woodpile near a forest, not about golf.
Coupal puts a further twist on this plot by making at least one of the teens, “Jack Carignan”, the eldest son of the financier who dies after getting shot, much more rational, focused and able to plan ahead than the average teen could be in real life. Jack and his younger brother, “Noah”, and their buddy “Zeph”, are the actual antagonists in the story. (Well, antagonists, if you think they are in the wrong; protagonists or heroes, if you are on their side.)
Vengeful, smart kids
A little bit of Physiological Psychology here: In adults, various parts of the brain work together to evaluate choices, make decisions and act accordingly in each situation. Teenage brains are works in progress. In teenage brains, the prefrontal cortex, a section of the brain that weighs outcomes, forms judgments and controls impulses and emotions, has not fully developed. Nor has all the synaptic connections in the brain been formed. As a result, reasoning is flawed, forward-thinking and assessment of consequences are poor, and because – conversely – the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that registers pleasure and rewards, is fairly well-developed early on, teenagers are focused on having a good time and getting immediate rewards.
Recognize this, parents? This kind of early mental maturity seen in these teens is unlikely, but after all, this is fiction.
The kids in the novel show a conscious, emotion-driven need to identify a killer and see justice done, a job at which the local police department completely fails. In fact, that bit sounded very like the real unsolved murders of Barry and Honey Sherman in Toronto. Their mother, “Catherine”, an architect-engineer, is in a similar moral quandary in her high-profile job where she manages a massive project – and the company she works for sounds like the real Canadian company SNC-Lavalin. Coupal uses these allusions to high-profile Canadian scandals to create a recognizably Canadian setting and, at the same time, to make everything in the novel seem sleazy and dangerous.
A pretty horrid little town
The themes of corruption versus honesty, and whistle-blowing versus keeping the peace run though the novel in multiple sub-plots. It involves people illegally hunting deer, lying about bad due diligences, covering for their cop buddies in unsolved cases, and doing speculative and questionably legal mega-mansion property deals. This horrid little town, “Beaufort”, Quebec, is just riddled with corruption, dead deer in dense forests, and people who are obsessed with guns and hunting.
Think America has a problem with gun control? America has nothing on picturesque Beaufort, which is not a real place. But there is Beauport, a borough of Quebec City. The way to Beaufort is along a road called “Chemin Van Kleet”, chemin meaning path or road. I could not find a Van Kleet Road, but there is a well known architect called John Van Kleek (who specialized in golf courses) – and Catherine is an architect. There are too many of these little nods to all things Canadian in the book to mention, including a reference to the blue feathers of the Chief of the local Mohawk First Nation, “Blake Pelletier”, like those in the Mohawk flag.
Horrible people and hate-worthy villains
Coupal’s vision of this part of Canada in 2012, which is when the novel is set, is downbeat and cynical. He contrasts this with occasional really beautiful descriptions of the environment. But the ugly side of Quebec definitely comes out. Canadians have historically had a love-hate relationship with the only mandatory French-speaking province in the country. I took a certain satisfaction from having a few of the Quebecois depicted as villains. (Hey, sorry about that…) As the one particularly nasty character rants, after he has been caught:
“‘Immigrant after fucking immigrant buying up Beaufort County, like it was toilet paper to wipe their ass with. And what do they do with it? They don’t contribute to the town, they sit on their hands until the value of the land rises sky-high and then they sell it off to another arriving immigrant, someone in their family maybe. A cousin. And costs go up for all of us, that’s what happens!’ […] Noah was frozen, staring at Lennox. ‘You’re an immigrant too, Mr. Lennox, indirectly, we all are,’ said Noah, the wisest in the room.” (p. 246)
That line – “the wisest in the room” – is typical of the characterization of the family in the novel. Coupal depicts the parents, the mother in particular, as overly devoted to their marvellous children, regardless of whether those children commit crimes of varying severity. The mother cloyingly fawns over her kids, risking her life and turning into a shovel-wielding maniac for their sakes. And the children, as I mentioned, are just too mature and too smart to convince me. This is especially true of the poem that Noah writes to his mother. It’s actually a pretty good poem, by any standard. But that kind of abstraction, metaphor and form are just not possible for a ten-year-old, even the private school educated, talented child of a millionaire.
But again, this is fiction.
Everyone gets their comeuppance
I therefore felt some Schadenfreude when Coupal changed the tone towards the end of the novel and the kids get into serious trouble – no vaseline on the lens there. The scenes of fights, threats, arguments and shootings are also very convincingly described. These scenes read as though the author were watching a choreographed fight scene on film and wrote it down move by move. However he did it, it works.
And the ending, dear readers, literally the last line of the book, is sheer genius. You’ll never have guessed it.
If you want a couple of hours of Quebeckers being pretty damn awful, and of being led astray in your guesses of who the killer is by lots of red herrings, this is the thriller for you.
On a small point – Coupal does have a couple of tiny language quirks. He uses the occasional awkward phrase. For instance, he uses the word “hoodlum” five times in one fight scene (p. 96). Hoodlum is quite an old-fashioned word, which clashes with the distinctly ghetto talk of the bad guys. As Google Ngram shows, in the 1960s the word was popular, but by 2000 it was on the way out. And it is stating the obvious. They are shooting people. They are obviously bad. Another example is that he writes that someone makes themselves “a tea”. Nope. You make a cup of tea, or you just make tea. “Tea”, even peppermint tea, is a collective noun, and you can’t count it.
OK, I’m a nit-picky reader, because, apart from those two instances, Coupal’s writing is as smooth as silk. There is no confusion, no fuzziness. It is clear, steady, plain and direct and entirely competent, which is why I could finish the whole thing in three hours without skipping a word.
About Denis Coupal
Denis Coupal is a Montreal writer and business strategist. His feature-length screenplays (well, that explains a bit about those fight scenes) were funded by the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama for Pay Television, Roger’s Pay Television and SODEC. His short story, Brand Loyalty, won Honourable Mention in the 2011 Quebec Writing Competition and was published in the anthology Minority Reports. Blindshot is his first thriller.