With a murder taking place in a very different version of our universe, B.L. Blanchard’s new novel The Peacekeeper (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) certainly sounds like an alt-history murder mystery. But as she explains in the following email interview about it, it has more in common with an animated animal movie than any whodunnit .
Photo Credit: Toufic Tabshouri
To start, what is The Peacekeeper about, and in what kind of a world is it set?
It’s 2020 in a North America that was never colonized. I wrote the book in 2019, long before we knew what 2020 would become, but I guess some part of me knew I’d want an alternate version of that year. In this alternate world, the United States and Canada don’t exist, the Great Lakes are surrounded by an independent nation with a dominant Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) culture.
And local detective Chibenashi has a body on his hands.
When he was a teenager, Chibenashi woke up to find his mother murdered and his father covered in her blood. In the years since, Chibenashi has become a police officer and caregiver for his traumatized sister in their small village of Baawitigong (what we know as the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada). Life is simple, and crime is rare.
When the story begins, it’s the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s death, and her best friend Meoquanee is also found murdered. Lacking any leads locally, Chibenashi reluctantly travels to the big city of Shikaakwa (what we know as Chicago) to interview Meoquanee’s estranged family and test the limited forensic evidence. Shikaakwa is home to the two people he never wanted to see again: his imprisoned father, and the woman who broke his heart.
As the investigation progresses, the interviews and forensic evidence reveal that the murders of Meoquanee and Chibenashi’s mother are connected in ways that seem impossible. Solving this crime will necessarily mean confronting the past and reopening the investigation into his mother’s murder. In doing so, Chibenashi will discover that everything he believed about his life and her death was a lie.
Where did you get the idea for The Peacekeeper?
I got the idea for the main setting of the book, Shikaakwa, when I was driving to work one day and had a vision of a high-rise building with a dreamcatcher built into it like a stained-glass cathedral window. That triggered the idea of what a never-colonized North America might have looked like in the present time. And the thought of what that world might look like, how it got there, its history, what values shape it, and its structure consumed me. The plot came together fairly quickly for me, but the worldbuilding, and the many different ways I could have gone with it, was something I thought about every day for over a year before I started writing: everything from why colonization did not happen to the societal dividing lines to just how technologically developed and globalized the world would be. A lot of what I came up with did not make its way into the book, but a lot of it will be used in the second book.
As you said, The Peacekeeper takes place in North America, but a version of North America that was never colonized by white Europeans. But is there a reason why you specifically chose the parts of Canada you did as opposed to what we call Florida or Alaska or Texas?
I am Anishinaabe, and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, so I wanted to set this story in the traditional homeland of the Anishinaabe, which is the Great Lakes region and, specifically, Sault Ste. Marie. I’m originally from Sault Ste. Marie, and much of my family still live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so that was also a big reason why. I wanted to show an urban-rural divide, so I split the action between the small village of Baawitigong and the major city of Shikaakwa. I picked the locations primarily due to my knowledge of the areas, but also to help orientate readers. For example, in a truly alternate world, I doubt a Chicago-area city would be as large as it is depicted in the book. That said, I primarily put cities in places where there really were large, pre-Columbian cities; cities in an uncolonized North America existed, they aren’t my invention.
It sounds like The Peacekeeper is an alternate history mystery novel. Is that how you see it?
I see it as an alternate history novel first and foremost, which features a murder mystery. However, I’ve always believed that the story isn’t really about the mystery, if that makes sense. It’s a story primarily about healing from trauma, and how a damaged person in a desperate situation finding his way out to a much healthier place. The mystery is the means by which he does that. But, unlike most mysteries, where the murderer is figured out at the very end of the climax, here it’s figured out far earlier, and the resolution is what he does with the information he has figured out.
Detective novels are often noir novels. Is The Peacemaker noir-ish at all?
I don’t really see it as a noir; it lacks the cynicism and fatalism that are hallmarks of the genre. Chibenashi, our main character, is very cynical, but he’s very much an outlier in his worldview, and you see it permeate his interactions with others. He’s very isolated, and he lives in a society in which community is paramount. This book, even though it is about trauma and murder, actually has a very optimistic view of humanity and the world. This never-colonized world is more sustainable and less isolating than what may look and feel familiar to many readers.
The Peacekeeper is your first published novel, but I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers or specific stories who had a particularly big influence on The Peacekeeper but not on anything else you’ve written?
The biggest inspiration for The Peacekeeper was Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an alternate history murder mystery. It’s set in 2004 in Sitka, Alaska, in an alternate history where Sitka was set aside as a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees at the start of World War II (which was a real proposal that fell one vote shy in the Senate of becoming reality). The book is set on the eve of the settlement being reverted to the State of Alaska, and is centered around a murder mystery. I loved how the crime investigation, and the partnership of the two investigators, gave you a “tour” of the world, and you saw it unfold from a very personal place.
How about non-literary influences; was The Peacekeeper influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Believe it or not, the Disney animated film Zootopia was a big influence in the sense of using a crime investigation as the means by which the audience is escorted through an alternate world. (I love this movie, and when you have young children, you watch it 100 times and start to analyze it.). In Zootopia, the crime is a missing person (animal) investigation, while here, it’s a murder. In both, the investigation takes the audience into different parts of the city and, over the course of the story, you get a very strong sense of the world as a whole. I hope that I accomplished that here.
You mentioned that there’s going to be a second book. But is The Peacekeeper the first of many to chronicle Detective Chibenashi’s long career in law enforcement, or will this series be going a different way?
The Peacekeeper is a stand-alone as to these characters; I feel that their arcs have been written to conclusion. So, at present, I have no further stories with them planned. But never say never. I hope there will be more to write about them — I would love to write more Takumwah! — but at the moment I feel like they’ve been left in a good place and so I’ll revisit them if and when they call to me.
And the second book…
It’s called The Mother and it is due to come out in May 2023. But beyond sharing the same universe, there is very little in the way of a relationship between the two books. The characters and storyline are completely independent of each other, so you could read them in either order and not miss a thing.
You mentioned earlier that The Peacekeeper had been influenced by the movie Zootopia. But to turn things around, do you think The Peacekeeper could also work as a movie? Or would it be better as a TV show or a game?
I would love to see The Peacekeeper as a TV series set in Shikaakwa and Baawitigong.
And if someone wanted to make that show, who would you want them to cast as Chibenashi and the other main characters, and why them?
My dream cast is Dakota House [North Of 60] as Chibenashi, [La Brea‘s] Tonantzin Carmelo as Ashwiyaa, Eddie Spears [Yellowstone] as Takumwah, [The Stand‘s] Irene Bedard as Meoquanee, and Zahn McClarnon [Echo‘s] as Ishkode.
So, is there anything else that people interested in The Peacekeeper should know about it?
While the plot features a mystery, this is primarily an alternate history novel and family saga, not a procedural.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Peacekeeper, what alt-history novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out while waiting for The Mother to come out?
I already talked about The Yiddish Policemen’s Union above, so in addition to that one, I can recommend Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which envisions a Congo that won its freedom in the 19th century and became a technological powerhouse and independent state. I also love 11/22/63 by Stephen King (an attempt to stop the Kennedy Assassination), and The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal (an asteroid hits Earth in the early 1950s, triggering an extinction-level event and requiring the space program to proceed on an accelerated schedule — and also with women astronauts).