Acceleration | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Acceleration is a thriller about teenage slackers in Toronto who track down a mysterious psychopath. The mystery by Canadian author Graham McNamee was first published in hardcover by Wendy Lamb Books in 2003. It was released in paperback by Ember in 2012. Acceleration won a prestigious Edgar Award as best young adult mystery from the Mystery Writers of America, as well as an Arthur Ellis Award for excellence in Canadian crime writing from the Crime Writers of Canada. It was also included in the “Best Books for Young Adults” list compiled by the American Library Association in 2004.

Author and Background

The publicity for Graham McNamee’s fourth book included a biography written in the terse style of an entry in a police blotter. “Graham McNamee. Male. Caucasian. 5’ 10”. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Do not approach. Extremely shy. … Present whereabouts unknown.”

McNamee was born and raised in Toronto before moving to Vancouver. He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood similar to the one described in Acceleration. He has worked in libraries, bookstores, a bookbinding factory and a lost and found office. He describes Acceleration as “‘What I Did on my Summer Vacation’ meets Silence of the Lambs.”

Plot Synopsis

Duncan lives in an apartment complex known as the Jungle, on the edge of an urban industrial wasteland in Toronto. His mother works part-time at Walmart while studying at community college. His father works the overnight shift at a printing plant.

Duncan reports daily to a dead-end summer job deep beneath the city in the lost and found office of the Toronto Transit Commission. (See also Toronto Subway.) The subterranean storage facility at the Bay Street subway station holds an odd assortment of items left behind on buses, subways and streetcars. One day, Duncan idly picks from a stack of books one with a brown leather cover with no title or writing on the spine. “The feel of the soft, worn leather makes me cringe — feels too much like skin,” Duncan, the narrator, says. The journal includes troubling entries and newspaper clippings about animal killings and arsons. It also appears to be the diary of a disturbed man who has been stalking young women on the subway.

Enlisting his friends Wayne (“the muscle”) and Vinny (“the brains”), Duncan decides to pursue the psychopath. In his quest, he is also seeking redemption for a tragic event from the previous summer when he had been unable to rescue a drowning girl. As a strong swimmer who was closest to her when she was in distress, Duncan feels responsible for her death. That terrible incident is revisited in dreams and in memory when he goes swimming in the neighbourhood pool.

The boys have engaged in such petty crime as shoplifting. When Duncan tries to interest the police in the troubled diary, he is ignored. Duncan keeps the book and, after some false trails, finally puts a face to the man when the Roach, incredibly, seeks to retrieve the book at Duncan’s workplace.

The Roach stands six foot tall (about 1.8 metres) with a solid build, buzzcut hair, an acne-scarred face, and mud-brown eyes behind “glasses thick enough to distort his eyes.” From earlier savvy sleuthing, the boys have determined their quarry likely works as a security guard at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Their hunch is confirmed when he shows up wearing the blue shirt and grey pants of a mall guard.

The Roach is followed home on transit. When he leaves his place, Duncan has Wayne break into his home, where they go undetected by the Roach’s deaf grandmother. As Duncan explores the basement and uncovers a prison-like dungeon, he is confronted by the man, who is wielding a knife. He lashes out, slashing a deep gash in Duncan’s left forearm. The teenager escapes and is pursued down the street. Duncan twists an ankle in a pothole, then hobbles to the nearest subway station, where he is again confronted on the platform by the man. In the ensuing struggle, both wind up on the tracks just as a train enters the station. Duncan saves himself by rolling beneath the platform’s short overhang, while the Roach is struck by the train, “pulped, crushed and left without any real features to identify him.”

Duncan suffers a broken right arm, a minor concussion, and road rash from being dragged along the track. He burns the Roach’s diary in a barbecue in the Jungle. He also discovers he is no longer haunted by visions of the drowning girl.


Acceleration pits a trio of slacker teenage boys against a man they call the Roach, a psychopath they fear will commit terrible crimes against women. The boys have had their own scrapes with the law. While Wayne is adept at lock picking, the boys only occasionally engage in what they dismiss as “victimless crimes,” such as shoplifting, in which no individual is hurt. Their pursuit of the Roach is a standard expression of the theme of good-versus-evil.

In hunting the Roach to prevent young women from being attacked, Duncan seeks redemption for his failure to rescue a drowning girl the previous summer. Finding the disturbed man’s diary offers Duncan a “second chance” to do the right thing.

The sick man’s diary also details his abuse at the hands of a cruel grandmother, raising the nature-versus-nurture question. Was Roach predisposed to be cruel (born that way), or became so because of his own mistreatment (raised that way)?

The book is set in a working-class milieu of apartment blocks known as the Jungle. The parents work in low-paying jobs with irregular or bad hours, while the teenagers endure dead-end, minimum-wage jobs.

Other Titles

McNamee has written several works for middle-grade audiences. His first published book was Hate You (1999), a bitterly funny novel about a teenaged girl whose vocal cords have been damaged by an abusive father. He followed that with Nothing Wrong with a Three-Legged Dog (2000), a heartwarming novel about friendship and dogs, and Sparks (2002), about a special-needs student placed in a regular grade five class. Acceleration (2003) was his first mystery. He followed in the horror-thriller genre with Bonechiller (2008), Beyond: A Ghost Story (2012), and Defender (2016).

Awards and Reviews

Acceleration received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, meaning it was regarded as an exceptional book. “McNamee’s taut novel reads like a fast-paced nail-biter of a movie.… A well-turned thriller,” the review stated. Kirkus Reviews described the mystery as a “read-it-in-one-gulp thriller.”

Acceleration won a prestigious Edgar Award as best young adult mystery from the Mystery Writers of America, as well as an Arthur Ellis Award for excellence in Canadian crime writing from the Crime Writers of Canada. It was also included in the “Best Books for Young Adults” list compiled by the American Library Association in 2004.

McNamee’s Hate You was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for children’s literature, while Bonechiller was shortlisted for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize at the BC Book Awards.