“The Taken: A Hazel Micallef Mystery” by Inger Ash Wolfe, $25
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.
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.
A young detective on the case 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.
Suffice to say, that nobody — including the captive’s grieving wife — is who they seem to be.
The problem with “The Taken” is that nearly everyone in the book is unsympathetic, including Hazel, who is alternately foul-tempered and mean-spirited toward all and sundry.
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.