What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mystery Monday: Inger Ash Wolfe's Identity Revealed!

I've been wondering for a while who the author of the rather compelling series of mysteries featuring small town Ontario detective Hazel Micallef might be. The books themselves -- which I began reading with the debut of "Inger Ash Wolfe" a few years back -- are interesting. The setting appears to be the traditional kind of backdrop for a "cozy" (aka "cosy") mystery -- a small town, plenty of people who know each other well and have for decades, lots of domestic conflict that might escalate to the point where one person flings a cup of scalding Darjeeling over another, or someone keys the brand-new car purchased by their rival. Until a serial killer comes to call, that is. It's that odd mismatch of what appears to be a tranquil backwater and some really gritty, complex crimes that captured my attention -- and the character of Hazel herself. She is feisty and cantankerous; in her 60s, divorced and with a characteristically ambivalent relationship with her ex-husband. (Book #2, The Taken, opens as she is recuperating from back surgery in the basement of the home her ex shares with his new wife; they are stuck looking after her because her octogenerian mother -- just as feisty and cantankerous -- isn't physically able to do so. )

It is Hazel and her attitude that has kept me reading these books. She is a welcome antidote to the usual breed of supersleuths found in many mysteries, or the women who often feature in those books -- women who are in the book to provide a love interest, or who end up feeling torn between their personal lives and their police careers, etc. etc. With the exception of a handful (Val McDermid's Carol Jordan, for instance, or the character of Vera Stanhope, created by Ann Cleeves, with her tendency to call everyone "pet" while fixing them with a laser-like glare), there are relatively few women around whom a series has been built that remain interesting characters from book to book. Above all, she is human and fallible. As she admits to her sidekick, James Wingate, midway through The Taken, she has ""a man trapped in my computer, live animals and body parts appearing on my desk, a CO who thinks I've outlived my usefulness and expensive gifts coming from missing friends, I also happen to have a pill problem ... So I'm slightly less than OK."

So who, I wondered, was behind the fictional creation of Hazel Micallef? All that readers were told was that Inger Ash Wolfe was the nom de plume for a Canadian novelist, and I mentally ran through a list of candidates, trying to figure out who that might be. Turns out all my guesses and wildest speculations were off base -- and mostly because I committed the tremendous faux pas of assuming that because (a) the author's name was female and (b) Hazel was female, the author must be female. Whoops... As it turns out, the author is Michael Redhill, who confessed in a column for the Globe & Mail in Toronto that he had long been fascinated by here the idea of "being inside another mind that you had to create out of yourself." At a younger age, he had tried acting; now, he decided to immerse himself inside the personality of another kind of writer, a crime novelist and a woman.

Readers' responses to the Ash Wolfe/Redhill novels have varied, but I have relished them, including the one that just landed in bookstores, A Door in the River. As before, the author blends the image of a small Ontario community with the reality of an ugly underbelly, the two meeting in what Micallef is one of the only people to suspect might even be a crime. When Henry Wiest is found dead, apparently of an allergic reaction to a bee sting after stopping off at a smoke shop on a local Indian reserve (a smoke shop being the place where the tribe is able to sell cigarettes free of taxes), Hazel can't help wondering. Henry didn't smoke -- so what was he doing there? And what bees are out and stinging at night? Hazel has never played well with others, so it's no surprise that when she starts investigating she ruffles feathers at the reserve, where a thriving new casino might explain Wiest's presence on the reserve -- if not his death. But what she uncovers turns out to be far uglier than a gambling addiction, and what starts off as a police procedural mystery ends up being a gripping suspense novel.

A bonus: the first two books are available very cheaply if you have a North American Kindle (less than $3 each) and the paperback editions aren't that much pricier if ordered from Amazon.com. Start with The Calling and read them in order so that you don't get irritated by the failure of Ash Wolfe/Redhill to provide a lot of background with each new book. The middle book in the series is slightly weaker, but only slightly, and the latest is gripping and compelling reading -- even if it does end with a new character arriving on the scene and the fate of an old one hanging in mid air. Oh well, let's just hope Mr. Redhill is writing very, very rapidly and that book #4 in this series will be making its debut soon...

1 comment:

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