Early in Humane, following a vision-dream of her dead grandmother, Hazel Lesage steals a dog from an animal shelter. Hazel, an amateur detective, has agreed to try to find the killer of an Indigenous woman named Nell August, though her investigation has stalled. The dog, Spider, is not a normal dog. Hazel can hear him speak to her, in her mind. And he has a keen nose for sniffing out predatory men, a skill which brings Hazel back to the hunt for Nell’s killer.
Hazel is cut from a similar cloth to hardboiled PIs before her, though her Anishinaabe-Mi’gmaq-Polish background sets her apart from the genre’s Sam Spades and V.I. Warshawskis. Hazel’s chapters—the novel is told from shifting points of view—are related in a cynical, conversational first-person voice. Hazel flips between heartbreak for the Indigenous victims she sees in her day job as a court transcriptionist and her unofficial detective work, and anger at them for unloading their misery onto her.
The chapters featuring Hazel’s teenage nephew Devin and her daughter Missy are told in a close third-person point of view. Missy, a firebrand activist who rails against all “that dead old Euro-Imperial Patriarchal Shit,” works as a nurse and tries to help the Indigenous sex workers she sees by setting up a “John takedown” website to identify violent clients. The gentle, inquisitive Devin is the first to notice a connection between the John list and a series of mysterious deaths in Amiskwaciy, Sewell’s fictionalized near-future Edmonton.
Billed as a mystery novel, Humane is more of a supernatural-tinged literary thriller. Hazel, after all, is a terrible detective. She interviews no witnesses, finds few clues. It is Devin, not Hazel, who starts to piece together the puzzle, and the basic details of the murder are not revealed until well into the book.
Humane falls within the growing body of work by Indigenous and marginalized writers that Indigenous scholar Daniel Heath Justice says “challenge oppressive lived realities through the intentional employment of the fantastic to imagine otherwise.” Yet Sewell seems to caution the reader not to lean too hard on genre barriers when Hazel says: “There are shape-shifters right here among us, and that is just reality—not magical realism or some cultural myth trotted out like a trinket to assuage all the centuries of poverty and humiliation. We are all Anishinaabek, a word that just means The People, real people.”
As a work of suspense, Humane is largely successful, especially in the action-packed final act when the pages can’t turn fast enough. Sewell sheds a light on how our individual and collective histories—of both trauma and love—shape who we are and our responsibilities to each other.
—Yutaka Dirks is an Alberta writer now living in Winnipeg.