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J(oseph) Robert Janes (1935-)


J. Robert Janes is best known as a writer of mystery novels for young people and adults, but he started his writing career with science textbooks and teaching materials. His original profession was that of geologist and mining engineer, and he still thinks of himself as a field geologist. "Occasionally I'm asked why I gave up well-paying jobs for the constant stress of never knowing if and when I'd be paid and if it would be enough to meet the bills," he once told SATA. "There isn't any answer except that I've always wanted to write stories."

Janes added, "I was the middle son of three boys and no doubt that helped because, being lonely and left to myself a lot, I used and developed my imagination. Mother was a very fine artist, very creative, a superb cook, and the epitome of what the Great Depression and small-town Ontario could teach a person. That, too, helped so much, for she made me see things as an artist would. . . . I think story all the time and want only to work in that medium. In a sense, then, one crosses a threshold and wishes only to be totally involved in the work. It feeds itself and expands until the time is filled and there is no longer time enough for all one wants to do."

Janes's first published work of fiction was The Odd-Lot Boys and the Tree-Fort War, a story about five boys who foil a real estate developer's plans for the vacant lot where they have erected their tree fort. His other works for young adults include Danger on the River, Spies for Dinner, and Murder in the Market. These stories are set in the southern part of Canada's Ontario province, including the city of Toronto and the Niagara Peninsula. Reviewers have praised these novels for their fast-paced mystery plots and realistic quintet of recurring characters. James Gellert, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, observed that the novels deal with loyalty and friendship as well as "more topical issues, including the threat to the environment of toxic waste in Danger on the River, and space-age industrial espionage in Spies for Dinner." In Murder in the Market, the mystery plot brings the teenage protagonists into contact with occultists, jewel thieves, and a variety of other dangerous types. In this novel, Janes, "succeeds in offering his audience an evocative atmosphere, highly spiced action, and a relatively accurate depiction of teenage life," Gellert commented.

Since the early 1980s, Janes has focused almost exclusively on writing novels for adults, especially his series of detective-mystery, psychological thrillers that are set in German-occupied France during World War II. Janes's interest in writing about Europe during World War II grew out of his boyhood friendship with a Belgian youth whose family had fled to Canada. "I'm fascinated by the tapestry of the Occupation," he told Maclean's magazine. "How when you pull one thread everything starts to unravel." His series began with Mirage (also published as Mayhem) and includes Kaleidoscope, Mannequin, Stonekiller, Beekeeper, and numerous other titles. The novels feature a pair of detectives as protagonists: Jean-Louis St-Cyr, a Frenchman, and Hermann Kohler, a German who is skeptical of his government's policies. "They are thrown together in the battle against common crime when officially sanctioned crime was rampant," Janes once told SATA. "They get on because they have to and become friends in spite of it all. The novels are great fun with a fantastic background, and truly wonderful characters, because that's what it's all about. They have lots of suspense and pace. They're thrillers, really."

These novels "have few rivals" when it comes to quality, remarked Reamy Jansen in Bloomsbury Review. The two detectives are "sympathetic" characters, the critic wrote, with a strong and believable friendship that "acts as a counterweight to the sadistic and greedy alliances that set the crimes in motion." The stories, Jansen added, have moral complexity and a well-drawn historical background, and "the dimension of Janes' knowledge throughout the series is impressive." At the same time, Janes has an ambivalent attitude toward research, having once told SATA that "too much factual stuff tends to form an obstacle to the flow of the story." Some reviewers have commented that Janes's stories have no problem with flow; indeed, Jansen observed, "the charged and desperate situations of Janes' novels are aptly joined by a careening narrative frenzy." Meanwhile, critics have praised his attention to detail as well. In a review of Salamander for Toronto's Globe and Mail, Margaret Cannon explained that Janes's period details "never intrude on the story. They just build and enhance it." Booklist contributor David Pitt observed that Kaleidoscope leaves readers "feeling as though we've traveled back in time."

Janes is a busy and disciplined writer, generally working eight hours a day, six days a week. "Generally I work all the time—that is to say, while I used to have hobbies and holidays, I have not had them in a very long time," he once told SATA. "Virtually everything I do is connected with my writing, the project I'm on, the one I'm about to begin, and those I want to do but can never seem to get the time for. I'm not complaining. This is simply the way it is. For others it will be vastly different." He writes rough drafts in longhand, then types them at the end of his workday, and once a book is finished, he goes through the whole manuscript and makes corrections before sending it on to his publisher. His dedication to writing is such that he is "cursed," he once told SATA, "by always having to think about the book I'm writing, or the one I will do next, or the one after that. If anyone tells you that this is fun—forget it! It is lovely sometimes to be able to write every day. There are the highs and lows as in any other job. But it is absolute hell most times."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Bloomsbury Review, January-February, 1999, Reamy Jansen, "Nom de Dieu!—Verdammt!," p. 8.

Booklist, October 1, 2001, David Pitt, review of Kaleidoscope, p. 301.

Canadian Children's Literature, Volume 48, 1987, James Gellert, How I Spent My Summer Mystery, pp. 93-95.

Chicago Tribune, February 23, 2003.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 21, 1994, Margaret Cannon, review of Salamander, p. C17.

Maclean's, September 2, 2002, Brian Bethune, "Prophets without Honour," p. 48.

New York Times, December 9, 2001.

Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2001.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalJ(oseph) Robert Janes (1935-) Biography - Career, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Honors Awards, Writings