TVO email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2008-07-08 published
Successful filmmaker at National Film Board turned to a life of crime writing
He worked on documentaries and television programs, and got to know the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but longed to write fiction. The result was award-winning short stories and a bidding war over a first novel
By Noreen SHANAHAN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S8
Toronto -- Film producer and record-label publicist Dennis MURPHY worked among stars, but he wasn't dazzled by them. His true ambition was to write and publish Canadian crime fiction, and it was a dream to which he held firm.
Writing fiction and doing his own thing was always on his mind, even while working for Elektra Records and meeting the likes of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Jim Morrison and the Beatles. The same could be said of his time at the National Film Board, where he had a hand in such documentaries and television programs as Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Manufacturing Consent and a portrait of the late Oscar Peterson titled In the Key of Oscar.
In Canada, Mr. MURPHY's work appeared on TVOntario, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Global, History Television and The Discovery Network. In the United States, it was seen on Court TV, National Geographic and PBS. In 1990, he was appointed executive producer of National Film Board's Studio C in Montreal. A year later, he became director of National Film Board's flagship Ontario Centre, executive producing more than 100 documentary films. "Dennis was brilliant at everything he tried," said friend Douglas McARTHUR, a retired Globe and Mail reporter. "He had a zest for life and Irish whisky."
Within a few short years of publishing crime fiction in such notable places as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Magazine and Storyteller Magazine, he became one of Canada's leading crime writers. Dead in the Water, a fictionalized account of the death of painter Tom Thomson, won the Bloody Words crime writers' award and Storyteller's annual Best Canadian Short Story prize, and was short-listed for a Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award.
In 2005, he won the Storyteller prize for the second year running with Death of a Drystone Wall, and with it scored one of two nominations for that year's Arthur Ellis Short Story award. The other nomination was for Sound of Silence. A year later, he won the 2006 short story prize with Fuzzy Wuzzy, originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
After a bidding war between two publishers, Mr. MURPHY signed a contract last March with Harper-Collins Canada for his novel Darkness at the Break of Noon. He borrowed the title from a Bob Dylan lyric, so clearly some of the stars he had worked with mattered to him more than he let on.
Dennis MURPHY grew up in Dundas, Ontario, loving the life of a small-town boy. But when he was 14, darkness descended after his 45-year-old father, Robert MURPHY, died of a heart attack. Dennis never got over the loss and always feared he, too, would die young. This fear may have explained why he achieved so much during his life.
In 1967, Mr. MURPHY graduated from McMaster University in Hamilton with a bachelor of arts in Irish literature. He was editor of the school paper, a drummer in a rock band and in love with all things Dylan. Bored one Christmastime, Mr. MURPHY convinced a group of Friends to go door-to-door "Dylan-ing." They greeted people on their doorsteps with Blowin' in the Wind instead of Come Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
After graduation, he was offered a teaching job in Ireland but moved instead to New York, where he threw himself into the music business. In 1971, he became the East Coast head of audio engineering with Elektra Records, but he soon returned to Canada and established Sundog Productions, based in Toronto and Vancouver. He produced albums for singers Shirley Eikhard, Christopher Kearney, Ron Nigrini and others. In 1976, he worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as director of Ninety Minutes Live, hosted by Peter Gzowski. He also worked on Take 30 and The Final Edition. As a highly successful freelancer, Mr. MURPHY's career took off in all directions, resulting in a curriculum vitae more than 20 pages long.
"Whatever Dennis did, he would just completely obsess about it, do everything he could, research it and just exhaust the subject and then move on to something else," said his wife, Joanna KUBICKI. "He lived for writing. When he wasn't writing, you could see him, the wheels were spinning - he was creating stories in his head."
Of all the genres, it was crime writing that appealed to him most, she said. Several filing cabinets bulging with stories were a testament to that.
Ms. KUBICKI met Mr. MURPHY at TVO in 1980. She was working in the arts department and he was freelancing. They came together over shared misery, commiserating about the abrupt ends to their previous relationships. He had a white dog; she had a white cat. Neither could find a place to rent, so they bought a house together in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood. It worked out so well that they married a couple of years later. In 1983, the circle was completed with the birth of their son, Adam.
Around that time, Mr. MURPHY began longing to return to the kind of small-town pleasures he knew as a child and to raise Adam in some place similar. He convinced Ms. KUBICKI to move to an old Victorian house in Stouffville, Ontario He not only excelled at his work but he was also an impressive community member. He became a scout leader, played on a baseball team, organized a music festival and was appointed to the Stouffville parks and recreation advisory board.
He started his own television production company, Anagraph Inc. He did some of his best thinking on the backed-up Don Valley Parkway while commuting to Toronto. But, true to form, he soon grew bored took a job in 1990 with the National Film Board in Montreal. The family lived in Hudson, Quebec, during the famous Mohawk land dispute in Oka, just across the river. Traffic jams were soon replaced with tanks on Main Street and disturbing newscasts. Out of this, Mr. MURPHY made the documentary Acts of Defiance, in support of land-rights issues.
The National Film Board transferred him to Toronto and the family moved back into their house in Stouffville. There, he continued quietly writing. In 1992, Ms. KUBICKI's longing to live in Toronto landed them in a house in the Beaches neighbourhood and an introduction, for Mr. MURPHY, to a gathering of writers at The Feathers pub on Kingston Road. He decided to get serious, and joined Crime Writers of Canada.
He also decided to try his hand at travel writing, and contacted his friend Mr. McARTHUR, who was then acting travel editor at The Globe. He submitted an account of his quest to find the perfect omelette pan in Paris.
"I thought it was really good, but I was afraid I might be prejudiced because he was a friend, so I showed it to some other editors," said Mr. McARTHUR. " They liked it too, and it ran as a travel front. The next week, I had a phone call from a professor at a journalism school somewhere in the southern U.S. He wanted to use it in his classes as an example of how to write a perfect travel story."
Toronto mystery writer Peter ROBINSON lived around the corner from Mr. MURPHY. He was also a crony at The Feathers and the two men frequently talked about crime writing over a pint or two. Mr. ROBINSON recognized his friend's passion and his excellent storytelling skills. He became a mentor to him. Around this time, Mr. MURPHY started to publish award-winning short stories, as well as starting on a book.
"The novel was his dream, and it's hard to get over the cruel irony that he should be taken away so soon after finding out that it was going to be published," Mr. ROBINSON said. "But Dennis was a polisher, a perfectionist. It was hard for him to let go of a piece of writing because he knew there was always more he could do to make it even better."
Mr. MURPHY also published a poem in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine called Final Escape.
"If a short story can be deemed a process of finite literary craft, then a poem is a word sculpture," Mr. MURPHY told Poe's Deadly Daughters, a blog for mystery aficionados. "It also elevated me instantly to the precious (to me) category of published poet, something that, as yet, has impressed no one who reads my curriculum vitae."
Scottish mystery writer Ian Rankin, who liked the poem, sent Mr. MURPHY a book that he dedicated to "the crime poet."
Mr. MURPHY, who until earlier this year taught broadcasting and film studies at Centennial College in Toronto, frequently steered his crime-writing into Canadian history. Without being preachy, the stories often packed a political punch. "I don't set out to make a bald-headed statement, just to write a story with a crime at its centre that has something to do with our world," he said. "I've been making documentary films for a long time and I suppose my feelings about issues are always there and ready (and more than willing) to be tapped."
Many of his killers were highly moral human beings who had been wronged, or who had committed crimes that readers might condone or even approve, he said. For instance, in Dead in the Water, Tom Thomson is killed by a local guide who feels his home in Algonquin Park has been stolen by "the painter" who sees only wind-bent trees and broken beaver dams. The story ends with these lines: "If I hadn't killed the painter, he'd be forgotten, too."
Darkness at the Break of Noon will be published in February.
Dennis MURPHY was born September 6, 1943, in Hamilton. He died June 15, 2008, in Toronto of lung cancer. He was 64. He is survived by his wife, Joanna KUBICKI, and their son, Adam MURPHY.
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