Canadian author J. Robert Janes, much-admired by a large fan base of readers who like mysteries and thrillers, has died at the age of 86, after a two-year battle with cancer and heart disease.
Known to locals as Bob, he was often seen walking through the streets of Old Town, head down, looking as if he was engrossed in deep thought. Those who knew him thought he might be working out some detail for his next novel. And that’s exactly what he was doing, says Gracia, his wife of 65 years.
Speaking about her husband at her King Street home, sunshine bathing a small collection of the large number of books he’s written and had published, she picks up each one, and each has a memory attached to it.
With a degree in geology from the University of Toronto behind him, there were the early books Bob wrote about geology that were used as textbooks for young students up to university level, and which included photos he had taken himself. Then came adventure novels aimed at young boys, when their four kids were young, and some adult thrillers before he started working on what became a 16-book series that made up the bulk of his writing career, which began in his early 30s, and continued until about three years ago.
His early years after university were spent in Alberta and Saskatchewan oil fields, where their oldest daughter was born, says Gracia. Then they returned to Ontario, where he worked for the Ontario Research Foundation, and with the Ontario Science Centre.
They moved from Toronto to St. Catharines when Bob accepted a position at Brock University. It wasn’t the job he expected or wanted, but it did lead to one of the couple’s favourite times, a trip across Canada with a group of adults and young people, arranged through the university, to study the geology of Canada. It was the only program of its kind, she says, and was great fun — the teachers worked all day with the kids, and then were able to relax in the evenings. “We had a lot of good memories from the trip,” she says.
By the time they moved to NOTL and neighbours would see Bob walking head down, deep in concentration, he was into his St-Cyr and Kohler series —the first was published in 1992 — set in France in the Second World War. It received critical acclaim from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Publishers Weekly, and gained a large following of readers who couldn’t wait for the next in the series.
Deadly Pleasures, an online mystery magazine, learning of Bob’s death, remembered him with tributes from other authors, including one who writes The Rap Sheet, a newsletter for mystery writers.
“I consider myself blessed to have met and exchanged missives with this quiet, kind, and generous author I so admired, and am glad also that I still have three or four of Bob Janes’ novels I haven’t yet cracked open,” said J. Kingston Pierce, author of The Rap Sheet. “I’d been hoping for more, of course, but the fact that such an abundance—including 16 St-Cyr/Kohler yarns—already exist is testament to the welcoming breadth of modern crime fiction. I hope that many new readers will discover Janes’ work in the future with the same joy and enthusiasm I have long experienced.”
Another contributor, Canadian author Steele Curry, wrote, “I will miss him tremendously. He was a nonpareil storyteller of immense dedication to his craft.”
Gracia says Bob had an early memory of his mother, a talented, interesting and complex woman and a fine artist, who knew all of the Group of Seven, and often would sit with them and share fascinating conversations about art and other topics. He spoke of being bundled up, at about three years old, and pushed out the door to play in the garden while she painted. When he asked what he was to do outside, he was told to use his imagination.
Bob could read before he went to school, loved to write at an early age, and felt playing outside, alone with nature, became the inspiration for his writing, Gracia said.
His father was a reporter for The Northern Miner and the Toronto Star, before he went into public relations.
“Bob grew up in an interesting world, in an interesting family,” says Gracia, “surrounded by artists and writers.”
Bob and Gracia both grew up in Toronto, although in different areas, and ended up meeting through her cousin, who briefly dated him. Then, faced with a dance for which she needed a partner who could produce a tux to wear, Bob was the third person she asked to go with her, but the first who could get his hands on a tux.
“He had a strong personality, he was a very intense, interesting person, one who held strong beliefs, and enjoyed engaging in intelligent, thoughtful, deep conversation,” Gracia says.
Those who liked his later books were often interested in history and the Second World War era — they were very detailed, and Bob made sure, through extensive research, that the details were correct. Most of his research was done locally at libraries and through inter-library loans, even once the internet came along.
He wrote out all his notes and drafts by hand, she says, spending long days immersed in his work, but once the evening came, he would relax in front of the TV.
He didn’t get involved in Gracia’s work with the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), the Niagara-on-the-Lake Conservancy, or other organizations or causes she was passionate about, but he was always interested and supportive — they just agreed early on he was best to stay away from her meetings and let her carry on.
However some of the same causes show up in his books, she says, pointing out two of his early children’s adventure stories. One, The Fort War, published in 1976, has a plot that involves stopping a development on an apple orchard, and another, printed in 1982, Danger on the River, is about pollution in a river, which was modelled on Twelve Mile Creek.
Another, Theft of Gold, was about four children combining forces to outwit a gang of gold thieves planning to loot the Royal Ontario Museum — Bob was connected to the ROM through his expertise in geology, says Gracia.
Of the children’s books he wrote, some published by Scholastic are likely still available — she’s not sure of the others.
Throughout his career as an author, and his 33 books, several different publishers in different genres were involved in printing them, and like many writers, Bob found that often stressful. “It was a difficult road,” says Gracia. Some of the publishers remain in business, but others were bought out, or folded, leaving him to deal with new editors and contracts. “The more publishers were involved, the more pitfalls there were.”
In between the kids’ books was one of his most popular, the adult thriller, Toy Shop, published by Paper Jacks in 1981, along with three others that followed in the next 10 years. They are no longer in print, but can be found online, as can the St-Cyr books.
One of Bob’s greatest pleasures after he stopped writing was to be invited to McMaster University Library, where more than 150 boxes of publications, manuscripts, drafts, research and reference materials and more are now stored.
Gracia and Bob were invited to the McMaster library to see the archives, and it thrilled them both to see the extent to which his work was valued, and understood, alongside other highly respected Canadian authors. “This is the best place to be for the work of Canadian authors,” she says, although most of his books were sold in the U.S.
Gracia says like many writers, Bob never made a lot of money for his books, “but he knew he had done the right thing” in deciding to make writing his career, and felt proud of his accomplishments.
About three years ago, his health failing, he knew he couldn’t write any more, and his life changed. He continued to walk for as long as he was able, but without his writing and plot details on his mind, he was more relaxed, and spent more of his time chatting with people along the way.
He was also more relaxed at home. Gracia has a beautiful antique piano in their living room, covered with a selection of family photos of their two daughters, two sons, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also has a list of songs she plays, but couldn’t while Bob was working, she says. “After he stopped working, he liked to hear me play. I’ve become a much better piano player in the last couple of years,” she laughs.
On his outings, he often stopped to chat with Donald Combe, who walks regularly with his dog, and Jim Reynolds and his wife Pat Hartman, when they were out.
On hearing of Bob’s passing, Combe said, “I have very fond memories of Bob and had many conversations with him over the years. He was a bright man with meaningful observations. He was also very helpful with the St. Mark’s trees as he collected bottles on his walks and the refunds certainly turned into a tree. I will miss him, but I am glad our paths crossed, and we did consider ourselves friends.”
In describing the church’s tree project, Combes says, no citizen of the town was more appreciative of the importance of trees than Bob, who had a deep interest in the collection of trees in the cemetery, and was concerned about them.
When a church committee undertook a long-range program of tree-planting, Bob “was thrilled to see what was being done to ensure there would continue to be new trees planted.” He made a personal contribution to the work, and also hit on a scheme “whereby each and every one of his daily walks would help contribute, so he began picking up beer bottles and cans and then setting aside the refund monies in his own Tree Fund,” presenting the Tree Committee with a cheque for $1,128.80, says Combe.
Bob’s donation for $1000 was for the tree project, and $128.80 for two trees in particle, one for NOTL Conservatory members and heritage preservationists Laura Dodson and Margherita Howe, both women he had admired for their activism.
Jim Reynolds, who has degrees in German and French, got to know Bob when the author came to him to edit the German and French dialogue in his mystery series.
He and his wife would often chat with him when they encountered him on his walks.
“He had a good sense of humour,” says Reynolds, “and he was intelligent and interesting to speak to.” Bob had “a huge fan base, quite astonishing.”
Although Reynolds says he has just started to read the St-Cyr stories, he could easily see them as a Netflix series, with the European setting during the Second World War, a period in history in which there remains great interest.
Pat Hartman is a retired teacher, including a stint at the now-closed Parliament Oak School on King Street, just along the street from Gracia and Bob’s home. When Hartman asked him to speak about writing to her class of students, “he agreed, and did a wonderful job with the kids. They responded very well. His subject was something he was very passionate about. And they really appreciated meeting a real author.”
Reynolds recently contacted a friend in Toronto, Ed Hill, a former resident of NOTL and a retired corporate lawyer with Inco, who has written and published a couple of mysteries of his own, to let him know of Bob’s passing. “He remembers good-natured sparring with Bob on various issues, but what impressed him most was Bob’s courage. He always admired the guts that he showed in leaving what was a very successful career as a geologist to become a full-time author, not knowing whether the risk would pay off. He admitted that he never would have had the gumption to do the same.”
He may not have got rich from his writing, says Gracia, “but he lived a good life.”
Correction: In the printed version of The Local, Bob was referred to as having a degree in biology. It was in geology. And he donated $1,128.80 to the St. Mark’s cemetery tree fund. The Local apologizes for the errors and any inconvenience they may have caused.