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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Night Bell by Inger Ash Wolfe

Pegasus Books, 400 pages, $25.95

Pseudonymous author Inger Ash Wolfe* is caught in the timeline she established in “The Calling,” the first Hazel Micallef book. In “The Night Bell,” part of the story deals with events in 1957 and its close temporal environs, and the rest in the “current” time of 2007, although the book is a 2016 release. That’s because Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef has moved forward only slightly in time from the debut novel. She was the acting commander of the Port Dundas, Ontario, police station in that book. She was recently replaced by her one-time protégé, Ray Greene, as the permanent commander. That’s okay, she thinks, after bouts with jealousy and resentment, she wasn’t the leader type. She continues to support this conclusion by her out-of-the-box, go-her-own-way thinking when dealing with the current case.

The current case is unearthed when bones are found in a former corn field — “…a rain of bone fallen on nearby fields. Calcium for corn.” — in a recent housing development. They are rapidly followed by the murders of two residents of the development. There are all sorts of shady shenanigans anyway involved with the development, which had stalled even before the discovery of the bones. All of a sudden, Hazel’s case is “stolen” by the Mounties. Maybe because they have nicer uniforms? (And are apparently more polite than Hazel.) Hazel is left with a corner of the case, however. In the process of unearthing the bones, all hands were called on deck to scour the field, and one of Port Dundas’ own disappeared while walking the field. Hazel irritatedly notes that it’s difficult to investigate the case if she has been barred from the scene of the crime.

Hazel’s irritation isn’t just reserved for the Mounties. She’s irritated because her department is facing an “amalgamation” with the departments of other nearby small towns into a big office in a soon-to-be-constructed mall. In a similar fashion, throughout the fifty years since Hazel was a teenager in Port Dundas, little towns have been affected by brand name stores establishing close to highways, drawing needed traffic away from the towns. Life has changed and is set to change even further for citizens of those towns.

One thing that has changed is how orphans are treated. That is part of the story set in the 1950s. Set near the land where the bones were found is the decaying building that housed the Dublin Home for Boys. The book begins with the story of one of the orphans. He speaks of boys disappearing in the night whenever a bell was rung. Later another witness says, “If you heard the night bell, it meant Old Father Crumb had come in the night.” Hazel and her friend and colleague, DS James Wingate, work to find a connection between the missing boys and the bones, but the case, if it IS a case, is fifty years old. Because Wolfe loves subplots, James is recovering, but not nicely, from an injury received in another case. Hazel’s loyalty to James and his steadfast desire to still be of service provides a tense and poignant part of the story.

Also part of this big story is the mental and physical decline of Hazel’s 90-year-old mother, Emily, former mayor of Port Dundas. We see her both in a 1950s story about the disappearance of a local teenage girl, an acquaintance of Hazel, and in 2007 as a distraction for Hazel. 

Wolfe has a lot to juggle, but it all comes together at the end. As usual, she provides enough creepy and gory stuff that you would never mix up Hazel Micallef with Jessica Fletcher or Port Dundas with Cabot Cove, Maine, even though, for such a small place, there are an awful (and I do mean awful) lot of deaths.

The Micallef series is compelling reading. I avidly wait for the next installment. Hazel is odd enough, broken enough, strong enough, stubborn enough, and oblivious enough to be one of the great mystery creations. Wolfe writes with dark humor and sly style that it pays not to rush through her works. Here are a few bon mots:
Jack Deacon [the pathologist] was bloodlessly professional. Hazel liked that about him, but she doubted outside of work that he was a barrel of monkeys either.
Hazel’s mother to her father: “[I]f you didn’t want a wild streak in your children, you shouldn’t have married me.”

* Somewhere along the line revealed as Canadian author Michael Redhill

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