September 1, 2008

Inger Ash Wolfe, The Calling

The Calling is a really creepy book. Although it is ostensibly a police procedural, following the efforts of D. I. Hazel Micallef's efforts to solve a murder case that begins in her small home town of Port Dundas, Ontario, its cover identifies it as "a novel of suspense," and that ultimately seems the more accurate category for it. Edgar Allan Poe, often considered the founder of the detective story 'proper,' wrote short stories in two categories: horror and ratiocination. The former (such as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat") are extensions of or variations on gothic elements and give us human nature at its most perverse, frightening, and inexplicable; the latter (such as "The Purloined Letter") hold out the promise that reason can prevail. Though the detective work in The Calling relies to some extent on ratiocination, on evidence and deduction, by choosing as its criminal a religiously-motivated psychotic* and by the nature of its denouement, the novel overall continues that first tradition, the gothic/horror tradition. But it does so without linking its specific story in any compelling way to some underlying idea about human nature (as Poe does, with his interest in the shaky borders between sanity and insanity) or about social institutions and their impact on individual personalities (as I think Ian Rankin does in, say, Knots and Crosses). Micallef and the other 'good guys' are well-drawn characters and the community they work in is nicely evoked, but I would have been much more impressed by a story that arose somehow out of that community, out of its history, its landscape, or its people. Instead, what Wolfe (whichever "well-known North American writer" he or she might really be) has given us is a grim, sometimes shockingly gruesome, but cheaply sensational cop-vs-psycho story--my least favourite kind of crime fiction, as it turns us into morbid voyeurs as we hang on for the inevitable last-ditch confrontation between good and evil. I thought the cross-country crime odyssey was inadequately motivated, as well: we get some back-story, but not enough, or not deep enough, to offer insight into the factors (whether psychological or social) that might give rise to such a character. Though a brief attempt is made to connect Micallef to the killer ("it was as if they had become twins"), the comparison is totally undeserved and undeveloped, so, again, the gothic potential remains untapped. The jacket blurb (unseemly, I think, in its effusive praise, which should surely come not from the publisher but from the book's readers) says that this "dazzling novel" is "the first in a series." It could be a good series, if it takes what is honest and human in this book and finds the tragedy, pathos, and police work in that. But I certainly won't assign this one in my class. For one thing, I don't find a teachable contribution in it, either to the mystery genre or to our thinking about crime as a literary theme or a social problem. But also, I felt awful while reading it, sickened by being a witness to its events, and while of course it would be foolish, even disingenuous, to be squeamish about violence as such in crime fiction, I want the violence to be treated as more than spectacle, and here, I wasn't convinced that it was.



*This is not a spoiler, as we follow his thoughts and actions from the first chapter.

4 comments:

Dorian said...

I just finished this, and I have to agree. Although I inititially found the use of the murderer's perspective to be more effective than usual (precisely because of the uncanny possibilities--the juxtaposition of known and unknown, horror and comfort--that are then later abandoned), this reticence is forgotten in favour of grotesqueries that don't do anything with the book's Gothic possibilities. (Your point about how unanchored the book is in its ostensible locale--no matter what the final paragraph says--is absolutely well taken.)

The more I think about it, the grumpier the book makes me, since I also feel that it condescends to its own genre. (The ploy with the anonymous pseudonym is especially grating.)

Dorian

Rohan Maitzen said...

it condescends to its own genre

Dorian, that's really well put, and I too get grumpier as I reflect on this aspect of The Calling. It rather sends the message that the 'literary' author considers this kind of writing a form of slumming--though the same set-up and characters could have been used to very different effect. Perhaps this is a writer who has not read much or thought much about the genre of mystery fiction before trying his/her hand at it?

Dorian said...

Yes, that makes sense. It's instructive to compare Wolfe's book to those by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville), which, although in a different vein, take the genre seriously. My point isn't that genre is fixed, but that the tension between constraint and innovation is one of the things that most appeals, to me at least, about genre fiction.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I was thinking of Banville / Black too in this context. I've only read Christine Falls, but that one certainly seemed a genuine engagement with the possibilities of the genre. Mystery writers like Ian Rankin and P. D. James also use the conventions of the genre to do some very 'literary' things; I would have thought someone who read their work (and not only theirs, of course) would see how this can be done without cheap effects. Wolfe seems to have operated as if this was a chance to have some (creepy) fun--though, again, I think Hazel Micallef and the other central characters in the town have better potential than that. Maybe next time...