The Night Bell by Inger Ash Wolfe is the 4th Detective Hazel Micallef Mystery that takes the detective into the maelstrom of two murder cases (Available today!).
At first, while reading The Night Bell, I was thinking that Inger Ash Wolfe (aka Michael Redhill) was a conjuror of sorts. At every turn of his latest Detective Hazel Micallef mystery, I more or less knew where he was taking the plot, but gladly traipsed along, turning the pages to enjoy the familiar terrain: a well-designed mystery backed by a most memorable protagonist.
I didn’t expect to finish it in one sitting, but that’s exactly what I did. Then, I watched the Susan Sarandon film based on the first book, The Calling (Susan Sarandon was terrific as expected, but the film was so-so), simply to spend more time with this extraordinary character. If we are to assume Mr. Redhill is not a sorcerer with magical powers, then let’s just say he’s an accomplished storyteller. Let me explain.
Hazel Micallef is sixty-four years old, which, I might add, is refreshing for a protagonist these days. It seems most of the fiction I read puts the hero in the perpetual 30-40 category, with an eye to the series being successful enough for a movie that will appeal to wider demographics, which the marketing gurus drool over. But, here we have the mature Detective Inspector of Port Dundas, Canada, who takes care of her elderly mother, Emily, with advanced myeloma.
Hazel is a level-headed, take-no-flak kind of person in both her professional and personal life. Her latest case is literally dug up when a dog called Sundancer finds a bone on the site of a brand-new subdivision being developed on the grounds of a former county foster home (the entire project is met with some resistance from the greater community as well as the subdivision’s first residents, who are railing about the corruption of the developers). The dog’s owners, Sandy and Oscar Fremont, take the bone to the police for examination. Later, the coroner reports on the grisly discovery to Hazel and her boss, Ray Greene:
She and Ray joined him on his left and right, and the doctor pulled a resealable bag out of his coat pocket. Sundancer’s bone was inside it. “The vertebra I’m not done with yet, although I am about ninety per cent sure it’s human.” He unzipped the bag and shook the bone out gently onto the tabletop. “This,” he said, standing back from it as if it were radioactive, “I’m a hundred per cent sure about. It’s the iliac crest of an adolescent boy. Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen.”
Hazel’s latest case is made more personal by flashbacks to 1959, when the disappearance of a girl had been blamed on Hazel’s half-brother Alan, who ended up an ex-con and drug addict, then passed away in 1984 at age thirty-nine. His unfinished, disturbed life still pains Hazel, and she is looking for some closure by trying to clear him of the young woman’s disappearance.
Hazel is a marvel of a character: both the senior citizen and the teenager are so well drawn that you’ll feel this creation is based on someone the author knew…the clear voice of the young woman, with all the trepidations that tender age dictates, morphs seamlessly into a seasoned investigator handling the trials and tribulations of life.
Then, here comes that magician again I spoke of earlier because other characters like Ray Greene, the new commander of the Port Dundas Police Department, and Charles S. Wilan, the deputy commissioner, are well developed, but in a bland vanilla sort of way. In any case, I didn’t give a hoot or holler and continued to read every dull thing they did and said because I was compelled to get back to Hazel.
Further in the story, more human remains are found during a sweep of the area. In the midst of the action, a sergeant Mel Renald, who’s assisting with the search, has gone missing (seems the detectives up Ontario way leave something to be desired in terms of competence). Hazel attempts to reach Renald through her handset.
Then a voice she’d never heard before said, “How can you stand so still within my sights?”
“No.” She heard the gurgle again. “I have your face in my crosshairs, Detective. Your bewildered face blown up ten times in the lens. Why are you still standing there?”
She heard the report of a gun and the ground leaped up in front of her. She lay on her stomach, frozen.
“Shots fired!” someone shouted, “Shots fired!”
“Shut up!” Hazel cried into her handset. “Who is this?”
“Well, I have his radio, sweetheart,” said the voice.
The unseen terrorist deliberately fires close to Hazel’s head, forcing her and the rest of the police to stand down. It begs the question, until the climax, why didn’t the shooter off Hazel when the chance was available?
The scene switches back to Sandy and Oscar (the owners of the canine that got this whole ball rolling) watching the police proceedings from their home, when someone enters the house. Before dicing them up, the intruder says, “Not happy here in paradise? You want to ruin it for everyone?” Then, the slayer sends an email through Sandy’s account to the police.
Someone has pulled off some brass-balls moves by slipping the dragnet, murdering a couple practically under the cops’ noses, and following it up with a message taunting them. Be that as it may, the plot routinely slips back to the 1950s, nudging the door open a little farther each time, slowly revealing the connections and motivations in all that has transpired.
I mentioned at the drop that this is familiar ground, executed in a fairly straight-forward manner, but that doesn’t detract from the fact it’s done well. Mr. Redhill reminds me, to a degree, of Agatha Christie. Not so much for Ms. Christie’s complex plots, but in the tailoring of the words that carried us through many Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot adventures. A sinuous, flowing narrative that lulls a reader past some obvious plotting and plain police dialogue.
Consider that a slight? I hope not, because I suspect you will enjoy listening to the rhythm of The Night Bell.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.