The Adventures of Isabel by Candas Jane Dorsey
Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
To begin with, you should know that Isabel is not the name of the protagonist who lives in the Epitome Apartments and solves the crime in this book. Isabel is actually the name of Ogden Nash’s daughter. For the uninitiated, Mr. Nash was an American master of light whimsical verse, a poet who appreciated tone and rhyme and odd rhyme schemes. In his 1932 poem, which is printed in full at the end of the novel, the unshakeable heroic Isabel meets an enormous bear, a wicked old witch, a hideous giant, and a troublesome doctor. Are they all characters in the saga of our unnamed protagonist? That, dear reader, is for you to discover.
Like Nash’s poem, Dorsey’s novel is light-hearted and whimsical—though frosting serious violent themes like gay-bashing and murder for hire. It’s clever, casual, and abounding in asides. A cozy dramatic mystery written in raw, effectual, and not-so-cozy language. I feel, I must caution you here: Dorsey’s characters are LGBTQ, real, and raw. They live that way and talk as they live. This is the mark of a writer who understands that most of the world doesn’t live in a hallmark card.
Our female hero, her cat Bunnywit, who she affectionately calls F*wit, her lesbian lover, and her diverse crew, are extraordinarily unique characters. This, in and of itself, calls to me. Denis (one of my favourites) is a gay crisis worker and our hero’s best friend. He calls on her for help when his friend Hep—she’s Hep because of her uncanny resemblance to Katherine Hepburn—Hep’s granddaughter gets murdered. If you don’t know who Katherine Hepburn is, I suggest you google her as our hero recommends, or watch an old movie called The African Queen—or at the very least, google images of the movie—to get a picture of what Hep may be like except for her white spiky brush cut. Katherine Hepburn would never go for that; then again, she might if she were alive today.
Maddy—full name, Madeline Pritchard—goes by the same name as her grandmother, and is a prostitute with a drug problem, so Hep assumes the police won’t care much about her murder. Denis does though, and knows our unnamed hero, a “downsized social worker” who got locked up at age fifteen and is considering becoming a prostitute herself in order to pay her bills, will too. And so the story begins with our hero drafting personal ads to sell herself as a pansexual play-toy for hire.
Denis dresses our hero up to resemble Maddy in her hooker boots, and she and Maddy’s girlfriend, Vicki cruise the streets searching for clues. During her perambulation, our unnamed detective meets a homeless Asian woman in the subway named Jian who knows Maddy and recognizes the boots. (The thigh-high boots are a recurring motif as Bunnywit falls in love with them. Cats!) When she invites Jian home for a meal and a bath, the two quickly become lovers.
Other characters of interest are Roger, a homicide detective and one of the hero’s ex-lovers. And the hero’s Christian cousin, Thelma. The Christian question dominates the story as Thelma’s church supports a group of skinheads called “Soul Patrol” who use their placard as a crowbar to beat up gays and anyone else who gets in their way. Our hero, who provides footnotes, for the proper terminology to describe her gender identity—bisexual, ambisexual, pansexual—is targeted by this Christian hate group and suffers at least one major beating that lands her in the hospital.
Dorsey subtitles her work a “postmodern mystery, by the numbers” which, in and of itself, requires a professor to unravel and a whole lot of philosophical jargon which I’m not prepared to tackle. Suffice to say, the “postmodern” phenomenon grants Dorsey a license to run amok with language, style, and social morality. I say, “Yay, Dorsey.” Her narrative is structured in short, numbered, and wittily titled scenes with footnotes and casual asides. Moreover, her narrative flips at her discretion between first, second, and third points-of-view. Please don’t be put off by this. Dorsey explains as she does it, and you never feel like you’re not a crucial part of this narrative. In first-person the private detective tells her own story. In third-person she narrates the actions of others because she’s not there and can’t share their experiences. And, in second-person, she speaks directly to the reader about the writing process. “We put in what’s necessary to build character, create mood, and advance action” and leave things out that are boring “habitual actions.” Dorsey promises never to knowingly fool the reader by “withholding clues” and admits she hates those “Jeffrey Archer twist-in-the-tale things.”
To solve Maddy’s murder, our hero’s crew visit some unusual locations. The night of her murder, Maddy was seen with two nasty looking characters and a very tall and memorable drag queen who the crew think might be responsible for the young woman’s murder. Denis, Hep, our hero, and her lover, Jian, dress up and cruise the clubs searching for this enchanting being.
If you’re looking to cruise with a Canadian Lisbeth Salander (think Dragon Tattoo) you may discover that Isabel’s Adventures work for you. Our hero triumphs over every evil thrown at her as does the unflappable Isabel. She’s not only our postmodern poster woman, she turns the tables on evil and is a necessary hurrah in our chaotic world. Oh, and did I mention, she’s Canadian, as is the city where the story is set?
The Adventures of Isabel: an Epitome Apartments Mystery is published by ECW Press.