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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Taken, by Inger Ash Wolfe (hardcover, $25)

Hazel Micallef is a curmudgeon. She is the commanding officer of a small police force in a small Canadian community, but she makes a big splash. She pisses people off, even important people who hold her fate in their pen nibs. She is recovering from injuries sustained when she captured a serial killer (The Calling). Her nursemaids are her former (and beloved) husband and his new wife, and her mother, the town's ex-mayor who left office in disgrace. Normal is as welcome as an ant at a picnic.

Despite being awash in asides, the plot moves along well, primarily because Inger Ash Wolfe is such a good writer. She provides stories for her many characters without breaking her stride. In The Taken, the plot revolves around the kidnapping and torture of a mysterious stranger, first glimpsed only slightly in a streaming computer video. Wolfe slowly reveals the pieces of the puzzle, even though we meet the victim and the kidnapper fairly early on. So, where's the suspense? It partly lies in discovering why the victim is a victim. Information is doled out sparingly, which is as it should be, and the depth of this engaging story grows.

A large part of the story has nothing to do with the kidnapping. It is about the functional and dysfunctional relationships Hazel has with others, but they provide a solid backdrop for the main police story. Interestingly, it is Hazel's life experiences which often provide insight into what motivates the criminal mind. Hazel connects on a deep level with one of the characters who alienated and then lost a child, because one of Hazel's daughters is prickly, depressed, difficult to please, and constantly looking for subtext in her conversations with her mother.

It's a complex and engaging package which Wolfe gives her readers. Despite some gory elements in both books, I have wholeheartedly recommended them to all kinds of readers. It's hard to find this combination of interesting characters and good writing.

Inger Ash Wolfe is a pseudonym for "a well-known and well-regarded North American literary novelist," and there has been a lot of speculation about who she is. At one point, Hazel has someone analyze the writing of a newspaper series to see if the same person wrote all the chapters. There are probably people right now analyzing the works of all the well-known and well-regarded female North American writers – excuse me, literary novelists – to find a similar style to Wolfe's. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me who she is. Margaret Atwood? Okay. Barbara Kingsolver? Sure. Catalina Magdalena Hobelsteiner Wobelsteiner? Excellent. Doesn't matter. It's a great series by whomever.

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