Valerie Mills-Milde Reviews Kevin Major's Two for the Tablelands
Two for the Tablelands is the second in Kevin Major’s Sebastian Synard mystery series. It is a fast-paced delight.
Sebastian Synard, ex-teacher, tour guide and fledgling detective, is enjoying his second day hiking with his 13-year-old son Nicholas, when Nick stumbles upon grisly human remains. It turns out that the victim is Simon Torres, newly arrived in Newfoundland from Mexico and a graduate student in the Earth Sciences Department at Memorial University.
Searching for answers, Synard looks to Simon’s academic circles, but the story takes a twist when Simon’s aunt, Gabiela, shows up and hires Sebastian to investigate Simon’s shady stepfather. On the trail of a killer, Sebastian takes a whirlwind trip to Mexico, involving tequila, dalliances with the beautiful Gabriela, a pair of Dobermans and a near-death assault in a Mexican hot spring.
Author Kevin Major is adept at providing dramatic locales which are, for the most part, distinct to Newfoundland. While his first Synard mystery is set in St. John’s, Two for the Tablelands takes its name from a geological phenomenon in the grand and austere Gros Morne National Park. Synard and Nick hike over periodite described by the narrator as, “a vast geological coup, a sublime triumph of beige.” This bizarre, unyielding landscape makes a terrific backdrop for murder.
“It’s one of the few places on planet earth where the mantle has erupted through its crust and come to rest on the surface. One for the books. A bona fide, 500-million-year old geological stunner. What we have today is a vast, almost plant-less, flat-top, yellow-oxided mountainscape. Looking for all the world like a desert, but, even after summer, still with patches of snow filling its uppermost basins.”
The book’s real charm lies with Synard, who is a divorce survivor, slightly pathetic, cynical and on the brink of physical ruin. He apparently imbibes his fair share of Scotch (and then some) while showing remarkable eagerness for adventures between the sheets. In some ways, the character does play to a familiar cliché.
However, Synard shines in his exchanges with Nick, a sensitive kid still reeling from his parents’ divorce and achingly in need of his dad. Relationships between fathers and sons are poorly represented in fiction. Here, the one between Nick and Sebastian, is believably drawn and tender.
“He’s tight to me on the sofa. Just when I think he’s growing up, cutting the ties a bit more every day, the unimaginable comes along and he needs me more than ever. After a while he goes off to bed, but within a half hour he’s back again.
"‘I can’t sleep.’
“I move to one end of the sofa with my book. Nick grabs a blanket and curls up on the remaining part, his head on a pillow propped against my leg. I hold the book in one hand while the other strokes the top of his head, through hair that he regularly styles with some expensive paste or other, that now is limp and out of sorts.”
The firm bond with lovable mutt, Gaffer, makes Synard even more endearing (Gaffer is based on a real canine pal of the same name to whom, I noted, the author has dedicated this book.)
“Gaffer jumps to the floor and stares up at me. His tactful low whine indicates his most cherished walk of the day is due him. He knows that by late evening a subtle approach works far better than an out-and-out yelp. He knows I’m a sucker for his stare.”
Synard’s social web--muddied with exes and their cop partners, among others--requires him to push through assumed grievances. The result is a relatable middle-aged man who struggles, and sometimes succeeds, in bettering himself.
Major is an accomplished writer; his style is easy and seamless and his work is a pleasure to read. A relative newcomer to the detective genre, his skill with plotting is displayed to greater effect in this, the second of his mystery novels. While mystery aficionados might find the ending here too tidy and the conclusion convenient, Two for the Tablelands does satisfy and ultimately, it is a whole lot of fun.
Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works and writes in London, Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (2016), which won the IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction and The Land's Long Reach, (2018) which was a finalist for The Miramichi Reader's 2019 "The Very Best!" Book Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. When she is not writing, she is a clinical social worker in private practice.