Ferguson brothers skewer Hollywood with new Miranda Abbott mystery

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When Will Ferguson was in his third year of film school, he worked on a movie-of-the-week set in Edmonton.

It was for the 1989 Farrah Fawcett film Small Sacrifices, an Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning, true-crime thriller that cast Fawcett against type as a woman who murders her three children. It was critically acclaimed and a ratings winner. But Will Ferguson’s most lasting memory of the experience was that it convinced him he did not want to work in film anymore.

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“I was a location assistant,” Ferguson says. “It was just such a stew of competing egos. Not Farrah. Farrah Fawcett was absolutely lovely. It was the crew. I remember thinking there are people who thrive on this. I was not one of them. It was my third-year university and it was my summer job. I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to be on set.’ There were two or three people making creative decisions and everyone else was just slumming.”

Ferguson would go on to be a successful writer, winning the Giller prize in 2012 for his novel 419. His brother, Ian, is also an award-winning author but has spent much more time on TV and film sets as a writer and producer.

So, in the tradition of “write-what-you-know” or perhaps “write-what-you-kinda-know”, the Ferguson brothers decided to set their second Miranda Abbott mystery behind-the-scenes on a TV movie-of-the-week, both a natural setting for their actress-turned-sleuth heroine and fertile ground for comedy. On a road trip for a family get-together in Regina — Will lives in Calgary, Ian in Victoria —they hashed out the details of Mystery in the Title, which finds former TV star Miranda Abbott appearing in the ridiculously titled movie Murderous and Mysteriousness at the Olde Tyme Hotel!! in her new hometown of Happy Rock, Oregon. The murder victim is her male lead Harry Tomlin, a five-time Oscar nominee and “Nicest Man in America,” who is clearly based on Tom Hanks. Why a movie star of that calibre would be doing a movie-of-the-week in Happy Rock just adds more depth to the mystery. Other characters include a pretentious art-house director, an even more pretentious cinematographer and a has-been action hero wonderfully named Poe Regal, who the Fergusons concocted as a mix of Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren and Steven Seagal. Tomlin appears on set by crashing through the atrium window at The Duchess Hotel. He is dead, which sets off a feast of quirky characters, red herrings, motives and inflated egos.

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“We try to come up with a cast of characters in a milieu that we can kind of make fun of,” says Will, who will join his brother and mystery writer Susan Juby for a Wordfest event Saturday at Memorial Park Library, hosted by Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut. “Basically, we look for a cast of characters that is fun. You write up a list of character types: the producer, the director. You try to make them as funny and weird as possible. Then you think, ‘OK who killed who? What are the red herrings?’ Every character should have a possible motive. Basically motive, means and opportunity, which is what a detective would look for. What you try to do is take each character and give them one of them, an opportunity, a means or a motive. The murderer is the one where all three line up. I don’t want to give away the tricks of the trade.”

While this may seem somewhat technical, the Ferguson brothers have fun writing these novels. Two of six siblings who grew up in Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta, Will and Ian first teamed up for the 2007 comedy How to Be A Canadian: Even if You Already Are. During the pandemic, the two began exchanging ideas for a murder mystery series and came up with Miranda Abbott. She debuted in last year’s bestseller I Only Read Murder, which was set in the easily pilloried world of community theatre. Miranda was introduced as a wildly delusional former TV star who bumbles her way through a murder investigation after landing a thankless role in a theatre production in Happy Rock.

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This was another world that Ian knew intimately. Most of his career has been in theatre. He studied set design at Mount Royal University and earned a BFA in acting from the University of Alberta and an MFA in theatre directing from York University.

“The books are meant to be funny,” says Ian. “So what can we make fun of that we know? When we were putting the first Miranda Abbott together, I was saying things like ‘Here are the sort of things that would happen with actors and theatre and stuff.’ He would say ‘Oh my God, you’re kidding.’ ”

While she remains delusional about her levels of fame, Miranda Abbott has become a much better sleuth and a much more empathetic character since we met her last. Similarly, the Fergusons have developed their skills in penning mysteries and figuring out the tropes, and how to skewer the tropes, of the genre.

The first book was largely written remotely during the pandemic. The second was written in much tighter quarters as they drove through the prairies toward Regina. While it might be tempting to assume sibling rivalry would come into play between two creative brothers, that is not so.

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“I don’t know what Will would have said to a similar question, but I enjoy his company. We like making each other laugh. We like rambling on and trying to come up with problems to solve. It was really fun. It just shortened the process.”

The brothers have penned a third novel in the series, tentatively titled Killer on the First Page. It was inspired by a trip they made to a writers’ conference in Sechelt, B.C. The backdrop will again be Happy Rock but the story will take place during a writers’ festival at the local bookstore. Among the characters will be a potentially murderous publicist named Sheryl Youngblutt.

“I may have to go into hiding after the third one,” Will says. “I don’t think Hollywood is terribly concerned about us mocking them. I don’t think local theatre has the resources to hunt us down. But authors are a surly, vindictive bunch. The next interview you do with me may be incognito. It will be at the Blackfoot Diner. I’ll be wearing dark sunglasses. It will be like a Deep Throat kind of thing.”

Wordfest Presents Ian Ferguson, Will Ferguson and Susan Juby, hosted by Shelley Youngblut, on June. 22 at 1 p.m. at the Memorial Park Library.

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