Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Barbara Fradkin - Getting down in the dirt

Barbara Fradkin
Barbara Fradkin is a retired psychologist and multiple award-winning Canadian mystery writer with an affinity for the dark side. Her gritty, psychological novels have been nominated four times for the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence for Best Novel (formerly Arthur Ellis) and have won the award twice. 

Not only do Barbara's books revolve around intriguing mysteries, but they give the reader a wonderful sense of the Canadian wilderness. I had the pleasure of meeting her a few years ago at a book convention, and have enjoyed several of her books since then, including the first of her new series Fire in the Stars. The Amanda Doucette novels have even more sense of place because... Well, I'll let Barbara tell you more about that herself.

A big thank you to Michael for offering me the chance to talk about my latest work. After writing ten Inspector Green mysteries set in Ottawa, where I live, I was getting restless for adventure. I was itching to explore new horizons and get to know new characters, so I developed the Amanda Doucette series. Amanda is a passionate, adventurous, thirty-something foreign aid worker who has come home to Canada to recover from a traumatic attack in Africa, but her impulse to help people and fix the world always seems to lead her into trouble. She can be single-minded, even reckless, and rushes in where angels fear to tread.

There are currently four books in this series, with a fifth in the works, and murder is, quite literally, everywhere. Canada has a reputation as a law-abiding but bland backwater full of bears, earnest people, and vast swaths of snow. Far from it! Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic Oceans, it’s so big that even Canadians have little idea of its varied, stunning landscape, let alone the colourful cultures that landscape has spawned.

Kayaking on Georgian Bay

I decided to explore this diversity by taking Amanda on a cross-country charity tour and setting each book in a unique, iconic wilderness location. The first in the series, Fire in the Stars, takes place amid the rugged cliffs and remote fishing villages of Newfoundland and the second in the snowy mountains of Quebec’s Laurentians. From there I move west to the pink granite islands of Georgian Bay in the Great Lakes, and The Ancient Dead, hot off the press last month, is set in the badlands of Alberta’s renowned dinosaur country.

Winter camping in the Cloche mountains

Naturally, in the interests of art and authenticity, I have to travel to see them. No amount of internet research and imagination can bring a setting or scene to life as vividly as getting down into the grit and dust of a place and walking in the shoes of the characters. With all five senses attuned, you notice sounds and sights you might never have imagined. The roar and hiss of the surf, the feel of the hot, dry wind tugging at your hair, the crisp squeak of snowshoes tramping across an open lake. Or the sweltering heat inside a tent when it’s -30 degrees Celsius outside.

Walking the cliffs of Newfoundland

So for each book, I spent several weeks in the area, sometimes more than once, and tried to do all the activities and visit all the places that might show up in the book. I walked Newfoundland’s ocean cliffs, hiked through the swampy spruce forests, and took a whale-watching boat. I endured a wilderness winter camping trip so I would know how it felt to slog through the cold and sleep on pine boughs in a tent. I rented a kayak in Georgian Bay to explore the deceptively beautiful but dangerous island channels. In Alberta, I rode horseback through the remote coulees in search of the perfect place to bury bones. 

Searching for bones in the remote badlands

Point Riche lighthouse 
Throughout this, I took thousands of photos, some of which I have included here, took notes, and recorded my impressions. Everywhere I travelled, I tried to learn not only about the landscape but also about the people, their history, and their culture. In Newfoundland I prowled the docks to pester shrimp fishers and fish plant workers, and I tapped my toe at a classic Newfoundland kitchen party. I attended local theatre, visited museums, and eavesdropped on conversations in local haunts. In Alberta, I visited local museums wherever I went, walked the open range, went on dinosaur prospecting tours, spoke to a local Indigenous elder in Milk River, and quizzed my Alberta friends and family.

Talking to a hoodoo in the Alberta badlands

Because Amanda is a foreign aid worker who’d worked to confront inequity and injustice overseas, she is quick to plunge in when she encounters similar problems in Canada. So running through each book is an underlying global human rights theme with a uniquely Canadian twist. In the Newfoundland story, the theme is Syrian refugees being smuggled by boat across the North Atlantic. In the Quebec book, I explore the homegrown radicalization of Quebec youth. The exploitation of domestic foreign workers is the perfect theme for the wealthy mansions tucked away on the remote islands of Georgian Bay, and echoes of the “me too” movement can be heard in the secrets of The Ancient Dead.

Meeting moose in Newfoundland

I am currently just beginning to research and write the fifth Amanda book, set on the outer coast of Vancouver Island. The pandemic is messing up my travel plans to this spectacular part of the country, but I hope that by this summer the vaccine will have made sufficient inroads that I will be able to go. Photographs and books will not be enough; I need to stand in the surf, hike the ancient forests, and kayak through the islands that dot the coast. I may even take a surfing lesson.

Researching this series has been a thrill and an adventure worth it all on its own, and I hope that by sharing these unique glimpses of Canada, I take the reader on a journey of discovery as well. And make them yearn for more.

You can learn more about Barbara and her work at:



  1. What fun it is getting to know your settings.

  2. For me too, Stan! I sure miss travelling right now.

  3. There's not only knowledge, but a spirit of place you invoke in your writing. You bring it alive!

  4. Recently we were asked why readers would want to pick up a mystery set in Africa. One of the reasons was the new sense of place that they would find. Setting is not just scenery but culture, language, approach to life.
    And right now the only way we can get that is to travel through books!