Review: Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt

I read Giles Blunt’s first crime novel as the 9th book in my 13-book Canadian Book Challenge.

Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department worked the Katie Pine case as though she had been kidnapped and probably murdered even though everyone else thought she was a runaway. When her body is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft five months after her disappearance it falls to Cardinal to notify the thirteen year-old’s mother of her only child’s death.

The Inuit, it is said, have forty words for snow, Cardinal mused, what people really need is forty words for sorrow. Grief. Heartbreak. Desolation. These were not enough, not for this childless mother in her empty house.

This scene, which occurs near the beginning of the novel, is heart-wrenching and sets the tone for a sombre, sorrow-filled tale about missing teenagers, the police who must look for them and the people who took them.

A young boy had gone missing shortly after Katie Pine and Cardinal is convinced the two cases are related. After Katie’s body is found he and his new partner, Lise Delorme who has recently transferred to Homicide from Special Investigations, are allowed to spend time on the cases and they learn that Katie was alive and tortured for some time before she died. When they learn of a new victim, possibly still alive, the race is on to find the culprit. At the same time as all this is going on Delorme is tasked by her superiors with secretly investigating Cardinal who they suspected of having provided a known criminal with tip-offs and other valuable information.

The highlight of the novel is the characterisations, particularly of Cardinal. We learn a lot about his private life, including the fact that his wife is very ill which has led him, in the past, to make some bad choices in life. His sorrow relates to both his past actions and his current helplessness over his wife’s illness.  At about the half-way point of the novel readers learn who has committed the crimes and from that point on we start to see action unfold from their point of view to contrast with the police investigation. It is not giving too much of a spoiler to say that there are two people involved with the killings and while we spend a deal of time with both I will remember one of the portraits in particular of the person so starved for affection that they will learn to kill for it.

Another standout element of Forty Words for Sorrow is the depiction of the small town and its surrounds. From the outset my head was full of images created using Blunt’s words, starting with the frozen body in its block of ice (not to mention the mechanics of extracting it). The depiction of the harsh, freezing far Northern winter with its frozen lakes you can literally drive a truck on (hard to imagine for someone who dwells on the edge of a desert), short days and houses impossible to heat is first rate.

In some ways I thought the mystery was the weakest element of the novel as there was a little too much unnecessary focus on the torture perpetrated by the killers for my liking. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was gratuitous but it hovered around that mark and some careful editing using the theory that readers will probably imagine what you don’t describe in detail would, I think, have made for a better story. Overall though the book has much to recommend it and this is one Canadian author whose other works I will be chasing up after my current reading challenge is complete. It’s probably not news to many that the reportedly large number of words that the Inuit have for snow is an urban myth but I still think it’s a great title for this book which is, ultimately, about all the different kinds of sorrow there are.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Harper Collins [2002]
ISBN 0007115776
Length 425 pages
Format mass market paperback
Source I mooched it

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6 Responses to Review: Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt

  1. Bernadette – This does sound like an interesting read. I agree with you that too much vivid depiction of graphic violence isn’t necessary to tell a good story; I sometimes think that readers don’t get enough credit for their imaginations. But the rest of the story – especially the evolving characters – sounds quite worth a read. Thanks for a fine review.


  2. Maxine says:

    nice review, it reminded me of how much I enjoyed this book and the subsequent ones in the series. I agree with you that the mystery elements were not as strong as the characters (and the interplay between the police, Cardinal’s domestic set-up etc).

    The last one in this series I read is one in which there is a real shocker which will be completely destroyed if you read the blurb or the cover ads – be warned.

    I think after that he wrote a standalone but I read somewhere that he is returning to this series.


  3. janebbooks says:

    Bernadette, have you ever read a book that you didn’t feel worthy enough to write a review.? Well not worthy, but a book so profound that words cannot possibly express your impression. FORTY WORDS FOR SORROW was such a book for me. Not only the title impressed me, but I so wanted to finds words of comfort for the two women…
    the young killer and John Cardinal’s wife, who is bipolar. These women are so flawed and in a small sense, so is John Cardinal.
    I never wrote a review of FORTY WORDS. But your review is outstanding. Do you plan to read the other books in the series?
    If so, take heed to Maxine’s wise words. Don’t even read the flap or description of plot for BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS before you read the first three of the series!

    Jane in Florida


  4. Jane yes that has happened to me. I read Peter Temple’s Truth this year and haven’t been able to put into sensible words my thoughts about it. I keep thinking I’ll read it again and then be able to do so but so far haven’t managed it.

    I will be reading the other books as I really liked this one but I will make sure not to read the blurbs.


  5. Maxine says:

    That “Dont read the blurb” warning has come home to roost on a Friend Feed discussion currently. Sigh.


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