Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

All of the pre-publication buzz about The Calling, a crime novel by Inger Ash Wolfe, has focused on the identity of the author. When advance publicity revealed Wolfe to be the pseudonym of a well-known North American writer of literary fiction, the guessing games began at once. Speculators constructed a pool of likely prospects drawn from writers who share an agent with Wolfe, have the requisite knowledge of the part of Ontario in which the novel is set, and have been long enough between books to have completed a new one. I confess to some curiosity about this. But now that The Calling has hit store shelves, I’m content to turn my attention to the more important question of whether it’s a good book.

It has a couple of significant flaws. First, despite the occurrence of a murder within the first ten pages, The Calling gets off to a slow start. As is too often the case with a book that is to be the first in a series, there’s an awful lot of back-story shoehorned in in unwieldy chunks in the early chapters. Second, there’s just too much plot for one novel. More than once, upon encountering yet another twist in the plot, I found myself eyeing up the pages still to be read and asking in a peevish “are we there yet” sort of tone what could be left to uncover.

But there is much that warrants praise as well. The cast of characters is a fascinating lot, each of them very interesting in his or her own right, and so too are the dynamics of the relationships between them. At the centre is Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, acting chief of the Port Dundas police detachment, sixty-one-years old, recently divorced, and fighting a reliance on the painkillers with which she soothes her bad back and the carefully concealed bottle of whisky with which she washes them down. Serving alongside her is Detective Sargeant Raymond Greene who, despite an outlook much more conventional than Hazel’s, appears content to answer to a female boss. And then there are the recent additions to Hazel’s team: Detective Constable James Wingate, a young, technologically-savvy officer, newly arrived from Toronto, and Detective Sargeant Adjutor Sevigny, a French-Canadian officer of intimidating size on loan from the Sudbury police, both of them with personal secrets that they must strive to keep concealed. This diverse group is thrown together to pursue, with little experience and few resources, a serial killer who is dispatching terminally ill individuals, one after another, in gruesome fashion.

A second strength of the novel is the sense of place evoked within it. In highlighting this facet of the book, I’m not referring simply to the vivid depiction of the landscape of the bit of Ontario where the fictional town of Port Dundas is located, but also to its relationship to the rest of Ontario and to the rest of the country. The novel brings to life the contrasts between rural and urban policing, and, as the scope of the case broadens with the identification of more victims, the tensions not just between rural and urban Ontario, but also between Ontario and other parts of Canada.

Finally, there’s the plot. I noted that there are a few more twists and turns to it than fit comfortably in a single novel but, nevertheless, it was altogether riveting for long stretches, and ultimately it wound its way to a very satisfying conclusion.

The Calling is not a great crime novel, but it’s a good one. And I very much hope that it is the beginning of a series because I suspect that, with the initial hiccups of establishing a series out of the way, the second book will be even better. I could very happily spend several more books in the company of Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef.


Anonymous said...

Have you read any of Elizabeth George's mysteries? I wonder how it compares with those.

LK said...

Thanks for this great review. I am hankering to write a mystery/crime something or other, so this is very helpful.

P.S. I am sorry that I've been such a slacker in A Curious Singularity. Following it, but not participating. Hopefully, I'll get back into the swing.

Anonymous said...

Just finished this last night, and feel much the same. After hearing so many "couldn't put it downs" from early reviews, was surprised at how long it took me to warm to it. Also, twigged to the final victim VERY early in the book. Hazel was less interesting to me than Wingate - drinking and back pain don't fully define a character.

I find the early Elizabeth George novels MUCH better. (Last two were a bit disappointing, but only in comparison to the genius of her previous).

Anonymous said...

Just finished this and have to disagree that Hazel is a character soley made up of back pain and drinking -I enjoyed the empathy she had with the killer and the victims - a common ground. Felt that the internal police politics slowed the story slightly but the personal relationships and sense of place were terrific. Imaginatively gruesome and worth reading in my opinion.