Pseudonymous novels of crime and detection by authors of literary fiction always are an interesting proposition.
A great deal depends on the writer's intentions: Are they simply trying on an alternative — perhaps less freighted — authorial identity, or do they have in mind using the genre to get something off their chest that might compromise their literary "brand"? The former motive can produce superb entertainments, as in the case of Man Booker Prize-winner John Banville's Benjamin Black novels. The latter often yields decidedly mixed results.
That's certainly the case with "The Taken," Canadian writer Inger Ash Wolfe's second mystery built around the character of Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef of the Ontario provincial police. When the first book in the series — "The Calling" — came out two years ago, there was a great deal of speculation about the author's true identity, which still hasn't been revealed. Suspicion fell most heavily on Margaret Atwood, with Farley Mowat a close second. In any event, it's clear that she/he is a writer of formidable ability — though not necessarily of detective fiction.
When we reconnect with Hazel Micallef, head of the force's local Port Dundas station in the lake country outside Toronto, she is recovering from horrific back surgery. The operation has left her at age 62 a bedridden invalid, unable even to get to the bathroom unassisted. Her long and painful recovery has forced her to take up humiliating residence in the basement apartment of the home her ex-husband, Andrew, shares with his preternaturally sunny, younger second wife, Glynnis. Hazel's annoying 87-year-old mother also is hovering about.
While the detective inspector wallows in resentment and a Percocet haze, a local fishing guide with an out-of-town couple in her boat finds and then loses what appears to be a woman's body in the lake. Wingate, a young detective recently transferred from Toronto, is filling in for Hazel and decides to notify her of the discovery. The possibility of a corpse — a weighted one at that — miraculously restores Hazel's mobility, and she's soon hobbling off to direct the recovery. The "body" turns out to be a mannequin, weighted and wrapped in a fishing net in what looks like a prank re-creation of the "summer story," a murder mystery the local newspaper is serializing. Wingate, however, discovers that the mannequin's "serial number" is, in fact, an Internet address and, when he calls it up, he finds a webcam trained on a man tied to a chair in a basement with the words "help me" scrawled on the wall behind him.
Hazel is back on the case and, as the story develops, she finds that her every move is being choreographed by a violently sadistic psycho, who is trying to force her into reinvestigating a young woman's death that may or may not have been suicide. Meanwhile, the psycho and his female accomplice prod Hazel along by hacking body parts off their captive (one of which they mail to her), through manipulation of the newspaper serial and, finally, through cellphone contacts. Suffice to say, that nobody—including the captive's grieving wife—is who they seem to be. There's more than one crime to be solved and the active portion of the story ends in a chaotically written, distressingly cinematic shootout.
Detective narratives nearly always are driven by one of two dominant elements—character or plot, and if the latter involves the police or other official investigators, by their procedures.
The problem with "The Taken" as a character exploration is that nearly everyone in the book is unsympathetic, including Hazel, who is alternately foul-tempered and mean-spirited toward all and sundry. The only remotely sympathetic characters are the ex-husband, whose skill at deciphering puzzles proves beneficial, and his young wife, whose kindness is portrayed as a kind of stratagem or New Age character flaw. Potentially appealing, neither character is sufficiently developed.
When it comes to police procedures, the coppers in Port Dundas — again, including Hazel — are a rolling disaster. There are reasons investigators don't habitually interview witnesses or suspects alone, as they do in this book. When it comes to technique, seldom have such abysmal interrogations been set to print. Similarly, cops confronted with armed psychos seldom refuse backup. We are intended to regard Hazel as a rebel against stultifying bureaucracy — there's a fine sequence in which she confronts a new administrator bent on cutting back the Port Dundas station and replacing her — but the problem is her go-it-alone-methods simply aren't very good.
One of the tip-offs that there's a serious writer at work in "The Taken" is the cultivation of an interesting subtext — in this case, an exploration of that emotional no-man's land where love becomes indistinguishable from pathological attachment, and affection fades into obsession. Near the story's end, this summing-up occurs: "Hazel had learned more about love this last week than she'd cared to, learned what it could do to those who are diseased with it. That it starts in longing and hope, but it can change, it can become something full of fear and anger…something more primitive; it stank of territory and possessions."
Fair enough, but three years after their divorce, Hazel wants her ex-husband back, though it's never clear what beyond inertia held their marriage together for more than 30 years. Hazel's mother cares for her in a distracted sort of way but has serious boundary issues. Hazel has a messed-up relationship with her messed-up daughter Martha for reasons about which both seem clueless. Wingate, as it turns out, is mourning the death of his partner, killed by gay-bashers so savage they also beat to death the dog the victim was walking. The psychos have been driven to their crime by pathologically protective affections, while the killer who set all in motion did so out of a festering possessiveness.
It's all a bit bleak and gruesome, which wouldn't necessarily be bad if "The Taken" did not rely on a plot that, at too many key moments, simply is improbable.