With her third novel, Calgary’s Theanna Bischoff delves into murder mystery. Left is built around a disappearance: 29-year-old Natasha Bell, a nurse in Calgary, goes missing while jogging one evening. There is no immediate explanation, nor an obvious culprit, and the disappearance goes unsolved for years. The plot follows those left behind after her death—her eight-months-pregnant teenage younger sister, Abby; her ex-boyfriend Greg, the prime suspect in her murder; her cloyingly Christian best friend, Josie.
Bischoff’s first novel was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first novel and her second was critically acclaimed. With her third, she continues to establish herself as a writer adept at character development and at a bracing and readable literary style. She’s a solid fiction writer, and it’s always wonderful to see such talents setting their work firmly in the Alberta landscape. Bischoff’s Calgary is replete with get-under-your-skin realism.
The story clips along nicely, the chapters switching in turn through the perspectives of the characters who knew and loved Natasha, and some who never got the chance. On one hand, this allows the full consequences of Natasha’s disappearance to be understood through those close to her; it’s a long and eloquent victim impact statement. Years later, for instance, Abby still talks to Natasha, and her young daughter speaks in the first person to describe the muddling confusion of her mother’s mourning.
But this structure also has an unfortunate effect on the suspense of the novel qua mystery potboiler. Through being able to access the thoughts of so many characters, we get a good sense—well in advance—of who could not possibly have been guilty. By process of elimination, we also start to wonder who could possibly be guilty. This is a no-spoilers way of suggesting that the structure of the novel, in occupying the minds of so many characters through its limited-omniscience narrator, painted Bischoff into a corner when it came to deciding who the actual culprit was. And when the reader finds out, there’s not an “ah-ha!” moment when the guilty is announced, just an “Oh, I guess that’s the only person who wasn’t obviously innocent.”
This is to say, Bischoff’s literary talents are uncontested. Left is a well-written and engaging novel that successfully gives substance to the abstract-yet-next-door feeling that violent crime has when you hear of it happening in your community. As a mystery writer, Bischoff may have slightly underestimated the logical demands of the genre, but don’t let this deter you from picking up a copy from your local bookstore.
—Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer.