The K Handshape - short listed for “Best Novel” by the Crime Writers of Canada

The K Handshape

Christine Morris is awakened early on a chill November morning by a phone call from one of her colleagues, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Leo Forgach. His daughter, Deidre, is missing. Despite the fact that she and the doctor have never seen eye to eye, Christine agrees to help in the search for Deidre — only to discover her brutally strangled body in a lake.

Heartbroken, Leo tells Christine that his daughter was deaf and has a child she had deliberately ensured would be deaf. As a militant supporter of the Deaf Culture, Deidre wanted a deaf child to make a politcal statement. Although some people supported her stand, many did not — including Deidre’s own father. Christine must use her new skills as a forensic profiler to discover the killer.

Maureen Jennings explains why she tackled deaf culture in her new mystery

Mike Gillespie, Canwest News Service, October 12, 2008

It takes a lot to get Maureen Jennings fired up, which would seem counterintuitive for one of Canada’s most popular crime novelists.

But Jennings, the very model of gentility and warmth, does get agitated while explaining what drove her to throw her bestselling new protagonist, Christine Morris, in at the deep end of deaf culture in only her second major case, The K Handshape. Jennings, whose seven-part Victorian Toronto murder series, the Murdoch Mysteries, migrated successfully from print to small screen across the country last January, says one controversial aspect of deaf culture drove her to redevelop the plot for her latest book, and get it off her chest. What incensed the Toronto author so much (”and it really made me hot under the collar”) was the publicized case of a deaf woman who, for political reasons, conceived a child with a deaf man in order to produce a deaf child.

The controversial case lead Jennings into the heart of North America’s deaf culture, a culture the pregnant and profoundly deaf woman at the centre of the real-life story claimed had been marginalized. To better understand the handicap and help shed more light on it through mystery, the author also signed up for sign-language classes. “I felt angry about this deliberate engineering of a handicapped child for your own purposes,” Jennings says. But after considerable research “I ended up not sympathizing exactly with the young woman but certainly understanding her position more. “There is a deaf culture that deaf people have great pride in and a great loyalty to,” the author discovered. So she handed over a variation of the case to her character, Det.-Sgt. Morris, a forensic profiler with the Ontario Provincial Police. What sprang from that is a remarkably poignant story about the murder of a young deaf woman who was trying to break down discriminatory barriers for the hearing impaired. The 25-year-old victim is the daughter of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Leo Forgach, a co-worker of Morris.

We learn that hate mail the woman received before her watery death in Lake Couchiching probably had a lot to do with her death. She won few friends after it become known she had deliberately conceived a child with a congenitally hearing-impaired man. Detractors paid little heed to her complaints of “centuries of discrimination from the hearing world.” “We are not dumb; we are as capable of raising children as a hearing person is,” the woman had proclaimed, just as in Jennings’s real-life example. “Deaf culture is just as good as any other, if not better.” Det. Morris teams up with other profilers at the OPP’s Behavioral Science Centre to track the killer. To do so through conventional means, though, is hopeless. As Morris tells us, you can forget what you’ve seen on CSI shows when it comes to analysing anything from a victim pulled from water. “Immersion in water is virtually fail-safe for wiping out prints or fibres or detectable DNA.”

Jennings is a master at drawing out her characters, here introducing new ones along with some she first brought to life in Christine Morris’s first case, Does Your Mother Know? As well as her cranky mother living in the Scottish Hebrides, there’s also that long-distance paramour (from the Isle of Lewis), Insp. Gordon Gillies.

Jennings is also at pains here to raise warning flags about casinos. As her character Morris says after a visit to an Orillia casino, which factors in her investigation: “Casinos do big business by appearing to be jolly, friendly giants handing out lots of money with a Ho! Ho! Ho! Whereas they’re actually raking it in and the customers are enticed to lose their shirts and everything else on their person.”

Jennings, who admits to “enjoying a little flutter on the horses,” says that in her experience casinos exist in a completely paranoid world, fearful about being ripped off and determined to suppress all information about their inner workings.

Before writing her new book, the author says she visited one particular casino a number of times. “Although many people do go to enjoy themselves, I thought it was a joyless place that essentially preyed on people’s dreams. There was very little jollity in the air that I could see. Addiction is a barren and painful place to be and there is a lot of it in the gambling dens.” It was from such a casino that the book’s victim emerges one winter night planning a liaison with someone in a waterfront park. Morris and the woman’s distraught father discover her body in the water. She had been strangled and her pockets filled with rocks. Although Morris and Dr. Forgach have often been at odds with each other professionally, she agrees to work with him to discover the killer. Jennings says she harbours great admiration for such forensic investigators. “They (profilers) have to encounter the worst aspects of human nature and still retain their sanity.”

Jennings’s new series is already being developed for film by Shaftesbury, which hopes to have it ready for audiences by next year. And for inquiring minds, the title of her latest Christine Morris case refers to making the sign for “to kill” — the K handshape with one hand striking against the other hand in a sharp downward motion.

Maureen’s books are available at your local independent bookseller, and online at Chapters.ca and Amazon.ca.