The Adventures of Isabel

By Anne Logan

by Candas Jane Dorsey
ECW Press
2020/$19.95/220 pp.

The Adventures of Isabel begins with a bleak scene. Broke, depressed and grown listless after being laid off from her job as a social worker, a queer protagonist and narrator is asked to investigate the murder of a friend’s granddaughter. The victim, Madeline Pritchard, lived a high-risk lifestyle as a drug-user and prostitute. Luckily, our novice detective moves with ease and grace in the disenfranchised community, which proves helpful in solving the mystery—as does the fact the detective gig makes her some much-needed money and new friends.

Although she remains nameless throughout the novel, the narrator bleeds into every other aspect of the story; her sexual preferences, her difficult familial relationships and her crude sense of humour permeate the novel, the first in the Epitome Apartments Mystery series. Often a victim of discrimination herself, she tolerates other people’s intolerance, joking away external prejudice: “Since the slumlord was the leader of a vocal anti-gay-rights lobby and I was an equally vocal out bisexual, it was better not to come to her notice.” This blurring of plot, character and narrative saves the reader from the tedious time investment typically required to establish interest in the inaugural book of a series. Yet the comfort that Dorsey demonstrates in playing with structure should come as no surprise; she is a poet, prize-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, creative writing teacher, publisher and advocate. In this, her first full-length foray into the mystery genre, she seamlessly manipulates the trope of the troubled noir detective into an ambisexual narrator that is both provocative and admirable.

The playful nature of the work also flows into its format. Each chapter begins with a line from “The Adventures of Isabel,” a poem published in the 1930s by Ogden Nash about a courageous young girl. The last sentences of the book establish that the narrator’s name is definitely not Isabel, and then the poem is reprinted in its entirety to complete the story. Madeline’s murder is eventually solved, but the puzzle of who the titular “Isabel” is remains a mystery.

Dorsey expects a certain level of open-mindedness from readers, liberally using obscure slang, fluctuating gender markers and overtly sexual references. Class divides are also broken down when the narrator finds solace in her own femme fatale—a homeless woman she at first befriends (they meet over a conversation on what kinds of food are safe to take from a garbage can) and then falls in love with over the course of the novel. Dorsey pushes the reader to confront their biases, but she serves this up alongside a hearty dose of humour, resulting in a work of fiction that both entertains and educates.

Anne Logan blogs about books at ivereadthis.com.

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