I don’t often find a contemporary mystery novel that hits the spot. As I’ve mentioned before, I think that contemporary mysteries swing too far either to the cozy or the bleak. This is why, when I want a mystery fix, I always reach for the detective fiction from the Golden Age (the 1920s-40s). The authors from this era (such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham) were writing fiercely intelligent, psychologically interesting, and socially conscious books that were also hugely fun to read.
In many ways, Candas Jane Dorsey follows in their footsteps. Her first novel in a projected series, The Adventures of Isabel: An Epitome Apartments Mystery tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who gets involved in the murder investigation of her friend’s granddaughter.
Right off the bat, I’ll say that I loved this book. And also, that a lot of people online emphatically did not. The tagline on the title page reads “A Postmodern Mystery, by the Numbers,” and that should give you an indication of some of the things that The Adventures of Isabel is doing differently. For one thing, the narration is very self-aware. The protagonist talks to the reader frequently, there are comedic footnotes (I can’t believe I get to post about 2 books with comedic footnotes so close together! The joy!), and every chapter is broken up into even smaller segments, each with its own tongue-in-cheek heading. Oh, and did I mention that the chapter titles are the lines from Ogden Nash’s poem “The Adventures of Isabel“? In order? Read all together, the chapter titles recite the poem in its entirety.
I thoroughly enjoyed all of those things, but what I really loved about this book was its Golden Age-esque intelligence and complexity. The mystery is what drives the plot, but there are lots of significant strands braided together that ultimately result in really solid worldbuilding, where the characters and story read as existing due to the world around them, and not the other way around, as I have found in so many subpar mystery novels.
The characters themselves are nuanced and extremely likeable. The unnamed protagonist is a queer, down-on-her luck ex-social worker, living off her last crumbs with her (wonderfully characterized) cat Bunnywit. Her previous career places her in a position where she has history with and connections to those living in poverty and with addiction, as well as to law enforcement and politicians. It provides an instantly credible foundation for her interactions with pretty much everyone in this story.
A lot of the characters in this novel are living on the margins of society, and that is one of the reasons why I liked it so much. The characters who are sex workers, addicts, homeless folks, drag queens, and otherwise divergent from society’s “norms” are not in any way “othered”—they are simply characters in the tale, fully developed and multifaceted. As elementary as this might seem, it is not always the case in novels, especially detective stories.
The mystery itself sometimes takes a backseat to the wordplay and the character development, and that too is reminiscent of my favourites from the Golden Age. Margery Allingham regarded detective stories as a container that provided a structure in which the author could play. Indeed, what makes the Golden Age writers so interesting is that they were using the mystery genre to explore a whole lot of other things. More than any other contemporary mystery author, I think Candas Jane Dorsey is following in this tradition.
I also laughed out loud all throughout this book, which to me, signals a good read. There are Star Trek references, a Keanu Reeves shout-out, and some truly wonderful cat moments. The narrator is a grammar purist, and one segment is titled “Shocking Neglect of the Subjunctive.” It’s like the author had a checklist of everything I love and made sure to include it all.
But before I get too carried away and declare Candas Jane Dorsey and The Epitome Apartments Mysteries the ultimate successor to the crown of the Queens of Crime, there are some criticisms that must be noted. There were a few times when I was reading when I felt a little uneasy about some of the language used by the (sympathetic) straight, cis, male cop characters, without anyone calling it out. And, the fact that there are so many sympathetic cop characters could in itself be called unrealistic/problematic, especially in the handling of cases involving sex workers. I have seen some queer reviewers on Goodreads also noting these things made them uncomfortable. They do need to be raised and considered. It is my sincere hope that Dorsey has reflected on and integrated this feedback into her next instalment of this series, which is entitled What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and is due out October 19, 2021.
Finally, I want to end on a high note by saying that at first I was baffled by the choice to leave the protagonist unnamed, but by the end I was 100% on board with it. There are minimal descriptors of the narrator, and no name is ever provided. There is a very specific part that informed my use of she/her pronouns to describe the narrator, but for the most part there is a lot of ambiguity. This leaves a tremendous amount of room for people to choose how they read the text. Especially in a novel where there is representation of so much diversity, including race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and physical appearance, one of the beautiful things about this story is that it feels like it leaves so much space for everyone.
I am truly excited about this series, and I am very much looking forward to the continuing adventures of Bunnywit & Co.