“This province too often gets short shrift, and is dismissed as dull or as not especially distinct from its western neighbours, but there is a definite ‘Manitobaness’ that I want to introduce to people,” Philipp Schott says about setting his new novel, Fifty-Four Pigs, in Manitoba.
Fifty-Four Pigs, the first in the Dr. Bannerman Vet Mystery series, opens with Dr. Peter Bannerman, a small-town veterinarian, watching his friend Tom’s swine barn explode one January morning. After human remains are found on the property and Tom is named the prime suspect, Peter sets out to prove his friend’s innocence. With the help of his champion sniffer dog, Pippin, Peter solves this mystery, but not without putting himself in grave danger.
The Winnipeg-based author explains how the work of writers like Tony Hillerman and Alexander McCall Smith got him hooked on the mystery genre.
“It was the vividly drawn setting and the unique people that stuck with me and made me come back for more. The series format allows this to be explored in greater depth than in a single novel. I couldn’t think of another genre that worked this way, and I really wanted to try it.”
A veterinarian himself, Schott realized that a vet would make a good detective. “Veterinary work, with its uncommunicative and often uncooperative patients, is also a process of unravelling mysteries by assembling clues under trying conditions,” he says.
New Selfoss, where the book is set, is entirely fictional. “The surrounding geography is real, but the town itself is the product of my imagination, and, to be truthful, of my longing for something like it to exist there,” says Schott.
In addition to beautifully capturing winter in Manitoba, Schott creates unique and lovable characters, such as the quirky protagonist, Dr. Peter Bannerman.
Peter has a sensible wife, Laura, and a tolerant brother-in-law, Kevin, who just happens to be an RCMP officer. And it’s good that he has such people in his life because Peter, “without actually wearing the label on his sleeve,” shares some traits with Schott’s children, who are on the autism spectrum.
“Neurodiversity should be seen as just another aspect of general human diversity, like hair colour or height,” Schott says. Some of these personality traits make Peter not only an excellent medical problem solver, but also a fine amateur detective – he is highly routine driven, methodical, and logical to the extreme. He is not, however, a good judge of human character, and this is what trips him up.
Dr. Bannerman is a welcome addition to the mystery genre. “I wanted him to be free of significant vices and demons,” Schott says. “In my mind, the world has plenty of burnt- out alcoholic divorced or widowed detectives. They’re entertaining, but I wanted something different that would be equally entertaining (I hope).”
Entertaining his readers is what Schott is going for. “I hope that the story keeps them guessing without the solution being too convoluted or improbable. There’s a fine balance in mystery writing between being too obvious and too obscure,” he says.
“I also hope they come away with an appreciation for the beauty of Manitoba in the winter, and for the humanity of the quirky characters.”