By Howard Bokser
The route to success for Peter Kirby, BA 80, was unlikely: From working-class beginnings in Ireland and London through kitchen jobs in Boston, New York City and Toronto, he landed in Montreal, advanced through Concordia and then law school to become one of the country’s top international lawyers.
Yet Kirby’s narrative recently took another unexpected turn — the 59-year-old has published his first novel, The Dead of Winter (Linda Leith Publishing, 324 pages), to much acclaim.
Despite his wandering ways, Kirby always found time to write, mostly short stories. Life got in the way, which is why it took him so long to complete his initial book. “I did write a manuscript years ago but it got lost on a northern-line train — which was probably a good thing,” he says.
Once his career was well established “and freed of infant children, I had a bit more time,” he explains.
One Christmas a few years back, Kirby found himself alone. “I thought, I could get drunk or write something, or do both.” The result was The Dead of Winter, a gritty crime fiction set in wintertime Montreal and featuring Inspector Luc Vanier.
As police uncover the bodies of five homeless people, Vanier follows leads that take him from homeless shelters to boardrooms and even the Catholic Church — uncovering uncomfortable truths along the way to solving the murders.
Montreal plays an integral role in the story’s plot and mood. Vanier is not a native to the city — just like his creator — which allows him a distinctive perspective. “He’s an outsider,” Kirby says. “Montreal is an easy place to live as an adopted city, but if you’re not from here, you’re doomed to feel like an immigrant.”
An earlier version of The Dead of Winter was shortlisted for best unpublished manuscript by the Crime Writers of Canada’s Unhanged Arthur Award. It didn’t remain so for long: the founder of Montreal’s Blue Metropolis literary festival, Linda Leith, picked up the rights for her new publishing venture.
“The biggest problem is finding a publisher,” Kirby says. “It was serendipitous. There are a huge number of good writers.”
The book’s reception has been stellar. Kirby has garnered considerable media attention, while best-selling author Kathy Reichs and 2012 Giller Prize-winner Will Ferguson are among those who’ve praised the work.
Kirby himself is quick to praise his alma mater, Concordia, for helping vault his career and second — or third — life. The native of Cork, Ireland, arrived in Montreal in 1982 and began working as a cook. He says Concordia offered him a chance, as a mature student, to attend university and study economics at night.
“They said, ‘If you’re OK, you stay, if not, you don’t. I eventually became an honours student,” he recalls.
Yet even that may not have happened had it not been for the patient advice he received from a professor, the late Harvey Shulman. Kirby was in Shulman’s six-credit political theory course, and most of the marks were based on the final essay.
“After I handed it in, Harvey Shulman called me to his office. He asked me, ‘Do you know what a bibliography is? Do you know what footnotes are?’ He spent an hour and a half with me, explained the whole thing, and told me to bring it back in 24 hours. I got an A,” Kirby says. “If he hadn’t done that, the rest of my life would have been different.”
After Concordia, Kirby graduated from McGill University’s Faculty of Law and became an attorney. He now practices international law with Fasken Martineau in Montreal; in 2012, The American Lawyer listed Kirby as one of Canada’s leading 500 lawyers.
His writing career, however, has only just begun. He’s signed with Linda Leith Publishing for at least two more Luc Vanier novels.
Kirby says his own favourite crime writers include Ian Rankin, Stuart Neville, John D. Brown and the late master of the genre, John D. MacDonald.
“His Travis McGee novels were so well constructed but also gave a strong sense of place,” Kirby says of MacDonald, clearly an influence. “They’re great stories but also commentary and criticism.”