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Unhanged Arthur: "Snake in the Snow" by William Bonnell

This week, we are publishing excerpts from the five manuscripts up for this year’s Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Novel

In today’s excerpt... William Bonnell introduces us to the streets (and dreams) of Manhattan at the end of the 19th century. 

An excerpt from Snake in the Snow, by William Bonnell

Chapter One

Sunday, February 12th

Henri Dubois was sitting on an old wooden crate, fishing through a hole he’d chopped in the frozen lake with an axe. The lake was fringed by tall pines and the sky was overcast, the water so dark that he couldn’t see more than a few inches below the surface. He’d been fishing all morning without a bite and was about to head home when a powerful tug on the line yanked his arm into the frigid water. He held on and pulled hard with both hands, digging his heels into the ice and swiftly walking backward to the edge of the lake. Securing the line around a tree trunk, he returned to the hole and saw the head of an enormous fish slowly emerging.

“You must be the world’s biggest lake trout!” he said.

“I’m a salmon,” the fish said.

“I could feed the whole village with you,” Henri said.

The salmon spat out his hook and the remains of the small perch Henri had used as bait.

Imbécile,” it said and sank back into the water.

Henri woke up with a start. A giant salmon? Why on earth would he dreaming about that?  He looked about the room. Pages of The New York Times he’d been reading after dinner were scattered on the floor beside his sofa, an empty whisky glass on the side table. A glance at the clock above the mantle told him it was almost 8:40, revealing that he’d been asleep for over an hour. He rolled off the sofa, turned off the lamp and went into his bedroom. His dog, Louis, padded behind him then stretched out on the floor beside the bed. Henri looked out at the empty street, noticing frost building up on the lower panes of his windows. Winter nights, he thought. They made him as drowsy as a hibernating bear. He undressed, pulled himself under the covers and was soon snoring loudly.

*     *      *

While Henri slumbered, Walter Lam hurried along Canal Street. A bitter wind swept in from the Hudson River and it was snowing heavily. He was shivering even under his magwa, the cotton jacket padded with camel hair his aunt had sent him from Shanghai. Walter made a quick turn at an intersection, glancing behind him to see if he was being followed. He turned again, this time into a narrow lane, and peered down it carefully. The snow was making it difficult to see and the only light came from several shop doorways and the dull glows of the kerosene lamps of outdoor food stalls, where a few people gathered for warmth and a cheap evening meal. He walked quickly, keeping away from the light. 

A house with a portico lit by hanging lanterns stood near the end of the lane. A wooden sign above the lintel announced it as the Lotus Leaf Tea House. Brushing the snow off his coat, Walter stepped inside. At one corner table, a group of men were talking loudly and eating from platters of steamed fish and bowls of rice. He recognized one of them as a merchant who catered to the needs of the amahs working in the houses of prosperous Americans.

Walter chose a table by a small window overlooking the lane. A clay model of a boar, the sign of this Chinese New Year, was standing on the sill. Walter was born in the year of the rabbit, and rabbit people were known to be financially successful. Yes, but I want more than just the money, he thought. 


William Bonnell was born in Timmins, Ontario. He spent 15 years abroad in England and now lives in Toronto with his wife, Clare, and their dog, London. His work includes poems published in poetry magazines, and Moving South, a book of verse published by Childe Thursday Press.  He also wrote The Sherlock Holmes Victorian Cookbook, a collection of Victorian recipes that includes a brief history of British cuisine. His novel, Snake in the Snow, is intended as the first in the series of Henri Dubois mysteries. His reflections on writing and reviews of books can be found at: http://wbonnell.tumblr.com

Established in 2007, the Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Novel is one of the prestigious Arthur Ellis Awards. Bestowed each year by the Crime Writers of Canada, this year’s winner will be announced at the Arthur Ellis Awards Banquet held on May 31 in Toronto.

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