Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. About fifteen years ago, the Canadian crime fiction scene gained a new voice: Inger Ash Wolfe. What was unusual about this particular author was that no-one knew who Wolfe was. The name was a pseudonym, but there wasn’t any information about the author behind it. Since then, it’s been revealed that Inger Ash Wolfe is really poet, playwright and novelist Michael Redhill. It’s interesting that, even with modern technology and the Internet, it wasn’t until 2012 that Redhill’s identity was revealed. Let’s take a look at his first Inger Ash Wolfe novel today and turn the spotlight on The Calling.
The story begins with the murder of eighty-one-year-old Delia Chandler, who lives in the small Ontario town of Port Dundas. The victim was terminally ill, so there doesn’t on the surface seem to be a motive, especially since it’s not a case of home invasion. DI Hazel Micallef and her team begin the investigation and soon learn that this is a very unusual killing. For one thing, the victim didn’t defend herself. In fact, all signs are that she cooperated with her killer, even letting that person into her home willingly.
The team members are just dealing with this case when there’s another death. This time, the victim is twenty-nine-year-old Michael Ulmer, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Again, all signs are that the murderer was invited into the home, and that Ulmer was a willing participant in his death. On the other hand, there’s a brutality, both to this murder and to that of Delia Chandler, that isn’t consistent with something like assisted suicide.
It’s not long before Micallef and her team see that they are dealing with someone who’s likely killed before, and is going to do so again. So they look for a connection between the victims that might link the murders.
As they trace the bizarre but definite pattern the killer seems to be using, it’s very clear that they’re going to need more resources. With the media in a frenzy and a boss who is reluctant to provide the extra staff and money, Micallef has plenty to deal with as she tries to find and stop this murderer.
One of the important elements in this novel is its setting: small-town Ontario. Port Dundas is the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. That includes Hazel Micallef, who’s lived there all her life. Her mother Emily (more about her shortly) was the mayor for years, and she has personal connections with just about everyone in town.
Port Dundas most definitely isn’t the kind of town where you’d expect a multiple murderer to strike. Crime there usually amounts to drink driving, bar fights, shoplifting, and other smaller matters. Even when it comes to murder, as one character puts it,
‘‘…in all the time I’ve been back in Port Dundas, I’ve had five more [murders], and all seven of them were open and shut. Christ, six of them were domestics.’’
Port Dundas now has to deal with a new, and very troubling, kind of crime, and it unsettles everyone.
This is a police procedural, so readers go ‘behind the scenes’ as the team gathers evidence, interviews people, and tries to make sense of what they find. Readers also see how one group of police works with other groups when there are multiple jurisdictions involved in a case. There’s also a thread of police politics running through the novel. Micallef’s boss, Ian Mason, is
‘…the worst kind of police bureaucrat: capricious and jolly about it.’
He doesn’t believe that the Port Dundas is facing as much danger as Micallef does, and it takes all of her skill to get him to approve the staff she needs. And in one sub-plot of the novel, there’s a very real possibility that the Port Dundas branch of the Ontario Police Service (OPS) will be closed, and the services merged with other small places. There are also some conflicts among the Port Dundas police. At the same time, though, the team does work together, and are all dedicated police officers. And they do have real loyalty to their ‘skip.’
Much of the story is told from Micallef’s point of view, so we learn a lot about her. She is sixty-one, and retirement is not that far away. Readers who enjoy protagonists who are no longer – ahem – twenty will appreciate Hazel Micallef. She doesn’t move as fast as she did when she was young; she has a bad back, and so on. But she is not in the least bit ‘out to pasture.’ She is skilled, intuitive and hard-working. She certainly has her faults and weaknesses, but she isn’t a demon-haunted sleuth who can’t interact appropriately with anyone.
Micallef lives with her mother, Emily, who is eight-seven, and is no more ‘out to pasture’ than her daughter is. She’s no longer serving as mayor, but she has a full life, including Friday night poker. Her relationship with Hazel is another important element in this novel. They love each other, but they are both strong-willed, independent adults. Here, for instance, is a scene that takes place one evening when Emily is hosting her poker friends:
‘Hazel stepped back into the kitchen [after greeting Emily’s friends]. ‘There. I was nice. Now you can repay me by keeping it to a dull roar. And by making me a plate of whatever it is you old ladies are eating.’
‘There’s a salad in the fridge.’
‘Go shower and rest. I have to put the pie in the oven.’
She leaned in to her mother, her voice strained. ‘I’m catching a killer and you’re baking pie and playing nickel poker? Do you think you might cut me just a little bit of slack?’
‘We don’t play for nickels, dear,’ her mother said, and then switched the stove to 250 before walking back to her friends.’
In many ways, you could say they are more alike than either wants to admit.
There are several sub-plots to this novel; readers who prefer to follow only the main plot line will notice this. That said though, the focus of the novel is the set of murders and what they mean.
The murders are solved by careful detection work, and with help from several experts, including a speech-reader and a priest. And the solution is not what you would expect from a novel with multiple murders. This is not a case of ‘crazed maniac runs around targeting victims for the sheer pleasure of it.’ And at the end of the story, readers are left with the unhappy knowledge that,
‘‘We’re not a little town anymore, are we?’’
Still, we have the sense that life will go on, and so will Port Dundas.
The Calling is a distinctly Canadian portrait of life in small-town Ontario. It features some very unusual murders that are solved by a team of disparate, but skilled, police detectives, all led by a strong-willed, sometimes brusque, but deeply dedicated inspector. But what’s your view? Have you read The Calling? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 23 November/ Tuesday 24 November – Blanche on the Lam – Barbara Neely
Monday 30 November/Tuesday 1 December – Death in Breslau – Marek Krajewski
Monday 7 December/Tuesday 8 December – Blue Monday – Nicci French