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BOOK REVIEW

A slick thriller, but who done it?

The Calling; A Novel; Inger Ash Wolfe; Harcourt: 372 pp., $24

May 05, 2008|Michael Sims | Special to The Times

I don't read serial-killer novels. I find life terrifying enough, thank you very much, without filling my mind with explicit violent imagery. But I found "The Calling" so impressive I couldn't put the damned thing down. Of course, that's why it's ultimately terrifying: because the characters come to life and only then come to death.

This book, the first in a proposed series, has received a lot of advance buzz not only because it's well written but also because no one knows who wrote it. "Inger Ash Wolfe" is a pseudonym. The jacket bio describes her (that seems to be the universal assumption) as a "North American literary novelist," which of course is publishers' code to keep U.S. readers from squealing, "Eek! I touched a Canadian book!" Speculation about the author's identity has been rampant. The problem is that most Americans can't remember the names of many Canadian authors. Surely not Margaret Atwood! Robertson Davies, he's dead. How about Farley Mowat? Well, there is a cougar in the book.

Part of the brouhaha resulted from the first version of the pseudonym, "Inger Wolfe," closely resembling the real name of Danish crime author Inger Wolf. When blogger Sarah Weinman (who also writes the Dark Passages mystery-book column at latimes.com) commented on this similarity, Wolfe herself e-mailed that she coined her pen name to honor a relative and that the similarity to her Danish colleague's name was coincidental. To clarify matters she has since inserted the middle name "Ash."

Cleverly deciding that this curious nom de plume must be an anagram, I wasted half an hour I will never get back. First I asked omniscient Google if there is a "Regina Sheflow" out there. It teased me by wondering if I meant to type "Regina Scheflow" and then reluctantly admitted that the answer was still no. What about "Oleg Fawshiner"? That sounds sort of backwoods Canadian. But when I tried it Google shut itself down and my Mac asked me if I wanted to report an error.

So who cares who the author really is? It's the book that matters. And the most important thing about this book is the detective, Hazel Micallef, a small-town detective inspector -- in her case unofficial police chief -- whose 61 years have included a failed marriage and a history of alcoholism but absolutely no experience hunting down serial killers. What a surprise to pick up a thriller whose protagonist seems real. Her back pain torments her; she makes mistakes; even her painkiller-induced dreams are convincing. Her relationship with her mother and ex-husband are believable and add depth and poignancy to the character. Interestingly, Hazel is not a particularly good detective. The major advances in her case are brought about by colleagues.

Although there are many supporting players rushing on- and offstage, "The Calling" has three primary characters: Hazel; the villain, Simon; and the setting, rural Ontario. Wolfe makes Simon not only terrifying in his religiously justified bloodlust but also viscerally repulsive. You can see and hear and smell him -- an appropriately disgusting experience. Equal to these two antagonists is their stage, the landscape, the small towns and suburbs and countryside, the familiar minor worries of everyday life. "And then, as if the marriage had been a caul in her eye," writes Wolfe, "she saw her true life-partner in front of her, and it was this place."

The characters, setting and the author's sheer writerly style rise above the plot, which is not exactly original. Before opening "The Calling," you could make a checklist of thriller cliches familiar from bestseller lists and Hollywood blockbusters; as you read, just check them off. You'll find a reluctant detective, a condescending administrator, a slimy newspaper editor, loyal underlings, a traitorous colleague. Oh, and blood, enough blood to challenge a special effects department. Several characters are really most sincerely dead when you meet them. You couldn't wind up more vividly dead at the Body Farm. Wolfe is not timid.

But this list works only in the abstract. By such reckoning, "Anna Karenina" and "Madame Bovary" are three-hanky melodramas (adultery, suicide, yawn), and they are, but they're also a lot more. And "The Calling" is a lot more, as well.

Not that Wolfe is the Flaubert of crime fiction; that would be Ruth Rendell. But this literary writer from North America has many talents. She gives her book details, wit, texture. Clearly she decided that if she was going to do this, she was going to do it right. Buried inside these convincing characters are reams of research on various topics including herbal remedies and herbal poisons and speech recognition technology. And yes, there are genuine surprises, twists and turns that will keep you turning pages quickly and too late into the night.

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Michael Sims writes nature books and also edits crime fiction anthologies, all under his birth name.

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