Fire on the Hill, by Frank Rockland. Sambaise Books, Ottawa, 2013, 354 pp.
Sitting in the Library of Parliament I am somewhat amazed at how this piece of history survived the tragic fire that consumed the Centre Block of Parliament Hill on February 6, 1916. The quick action of the clerk “Connie” MacCormac, in ordering the closing of the large iron fire doors before evacuating, saved the library and its vital contents for future generations. But what really happened that evening? Was it mere carelessness of a smoker of cigars or was there something more sinister at play? Those are the questions that Frank Rockland explores in a thrilling fictional tale of conspiracy, politics and spies.
The plot of the novel centres on Inspector Andrew MacNutt and his wife Katherine. As head of the Dominion Secret Police, Inspector MacNutt has been attempting to keep the Canadian border secure against a network of German saboteurs run out of New York by Captains Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed. After the Americans declare von Papen persona non grata and order him back to Europe, the Germans send Count Jaggi to replace him via Canada. Operating under the guise of the Belgian relief effort, Count Jaggi insinuates himself into the Ottawa establishment meeting regularly with Conservative Prime Minster Sir Robert Borden, Leader of the Official Opposition Liberals, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, future Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Governor General. Jaggi, a womanizer with a particular fondness for those already married, grows closer to Katherine MacNutt in an attempt to learn her husband’s plans against the saboteurs. The setting of the novel oscillates between Ottawa and New York and slowly builds towards the fateful night of February 6 where the Inspector, Mrs. NacNutt and the Count are all found in the reading room of the Centre Block where the fire is thought to have begun.
Rockland does an exceptional job of placing the reader in the historical Canadian context of the First World War. The reader will explore elements of the social and political changes that were underway during the period, such as the role of women in the war effort, the great divide between English and French Canadians about possible conscription, and the formation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In addition, the writer does an extraordinary job in portraying the social customs and historical elements of the piece in a thoughtful and informative manner that aficionados of history will find compelling. My only critique of the novel is that the conclusion may leave the reader less than satisfied, as it makes little effort to adequately tie up the loose threads that are spun throughout the preceding 34 chapters. However, it does leave the writer with an opening to continue the development of these characters in a subsequent book.
Overall, Fire on the Hill is a weighty contribution for those who are fans of historical fiction, and specifically, those who enjoy speculating about historical events from the perspective of conspiracy. It is a novel that is true to its historical underpinnings and does not sacrifice fact for plot development. The book, which will keep readers engaged chapter after chapter, leaves readers with an urge to learn more about what life was like on the home front and about the key political and social figures at a turning point in Canadian history.
Michael Burke Christian
PhD candidate (Communications and Culture), York University