At the end of their careers, Mounties dismount, right? They walk slowly and bow-leggedly into the sunset. Isn’t that how it works? Well, not if you’re Victoria’s John C. Smith. And he isn’t taking his retirement sitting, let alone lying down, either. No, for this ex-RCMP man, it is still very much high noon out there.
Even a passing look at John’s life reveals a couple of common threads – a kind of wanderlust and love of the written word. So, it may be easy to see how a retired RCMP officer ends up in British Columbia writing novels. But to truly understand, we have to go back to nearly the beginning. John C. Smith was born in Essex County in the UK. You don’t get farther back than that.
“At age 11, I was lucky to be admitted to a Grammar School for seven years,” he says. “I think, that, in retrospect, may have helped me to eventually enjoy writing. My English teacher was the consummate literature and grammar instructor. We were immersed in the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Yeats, Coleridge, etc.”
The desire to write creatively didn’t rear its beautiful head until a little later. Emigration to Canada was followed by a couple of years working at a bank in Calgary and then a long career in law enforcement ensued. But it wasn’t just any force. It was the iconic one, the one by which Canada has come to be known by many around the world.
“Something about being in Canada made me want to experience life in the open,” says John. A municipal or even regional force didn’t have that appeal for him.
Following a gruelling process that challenges applicants physically and mentally, John had reservations about whether he’d be one of the one in about 20 or so that are successful.
“I was at the bank when the call came,” he says. “The Sergeant in charge of recruiting said, ‘Mr. Smith, how would you like to become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?’ I was at a loss for words and didn’t answer for several seconds and stammered something stupid like, ‘Er, yeah, I guess so.’ I was 22.”
John closed one account and opened a new one.
“I spent 25 years at seven ‘postings,’ performing general duty police work at four detachments in BC. One of them, at Enderby in the North Okanagan, I was the Corporal in charge.”
It was at this point that John changed hats briefly. A Mountie’s hat can be so conspicuous.
“I was interviewed for an instructor position at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa,” he says. “I required an undergrad degree, and was allowed to attend University (Waterloo) during the school year, and work in Ottawa in the summer. During this time, of course, I wrote many papers. I spent three years teaching Management Theory, a difficult subject to get into my head, but I did and came to enjoy the teaching experience.”
John’s final transfer was to Kamloops. There, he was a Watch Commander and responsible for the deployment of 50 people. During his tenure on the force, he had written innumerable reports, the bulk of which involving criminal cases and had assisted prosecutors in preparing matters for the court. But it wasn’t until this last assignment in Kamloops that the writing bug bit with the force it did. While he had written articles for the RCMP Quarterly magazine, in addition to a number of short stories, mostly for his own amusement, John knew the desire to write a book had been distilling in him for some time. Content wasn’t the problem. How to begin proved the most challenging part. Sometimes, it takes the ones closest to you to give the shot you need, sort of like ending the distillation process and finally enjoying a single malt.
“It wasn’t until I fully retired from work that my wife, Jean, and all three of our sons, ganged up on me, shamed me almost, that I took up pen and paper, literally, and began writing my first tale.”
John recalled the sage advice from an English Literature Professor a half century prior: Write about what you know. You’re the expert.
“What else but a story about the Mounties?”
The result was John’s debut novel, The Scarlet Sentinels, based on what really happens in and around the lives of the men and women of Canada’s federal police force.
“Taking cruise ship tours led to my second novel,” he says. “I was doing a trip through the Mediterranean and spoke to the officer in charge of the Security Section. I found that these people are not police officers, but merely glorified guards. A germ of an idea formed. Why not write a ‘whodunnit’ of a murder at sea?”
With the help of one son, who is an Ottawa lawyer well versed in international law including UN Treaties, which act in lieu of law on the high seas, John wrote his second novel First Class Passage. His manuscript for The Scarlet Sentinels was 400 pieces of foolscap. For this work, John gladly traded in pen and paper for a laptop.
Pretenders are a dime a dozen. Renaissance men are hard to find these days, but John fits the bill. When he isn’t busy writing novels, he stays busy running on a treadmill and swimming at a local recreation centre. This keeps him in shape, so he and Jean can take on the rigours of travel. Their latest was a European riverboat cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam. He volunteers at Langham Court Theatre (there’s the written word again) painting sets for the six productions they put on yearly. What little time remains is devoted to gardening.
The motto of the RCMP is ‘Maintiens le Droit’. But in the case of John C. Smith with all of its romance and adventure, its action and intrigue, as they always do, the Mounties got their man.