Mystery tale created as an exercise in writing a book beginning to end, ‘with no skipping about’

New Candas Jane Dorsey novel promises fun whether or not readers enjoy the mystery genre

When a downsized social worker helps a good friend deal with the murder of a beloved granddaughter, she and her cat are thrust into a gritty world full of sex, lies, and betrayal. She faces these challenges with intelligence and humour, only to discover that what at first appeared to be a simple street killing in a Canadian city is just the surface of a complex and dark set of criminal schemes.

The Adventures of Isabel, the first novel in a new mystery series, comes from the playful mind of Edmonton writer and editor Candas Jane Dorsey.

“I began writing The Adventures of Isabel as kind of exercise,” Dorsey explains. “The rules were that I had to write it in order from beginning to end, with no skipping about as I usually do when I’m writing a big project. When I needed some clues, I invented them without knowing in advance what they would mean to the story. I was pleasantly surprised how well they all dovetailed as the plot unfurled.”

At the novel’s centre is a queer, nameless, grammar-conscious, amateur detective. The story is structured around the Ogden Nash poem from which the novel gets its title.

“The nameless protagonist developed fairly early, partly as a nod to many nameless detectives back through 80 or 90 years of the modern noir mystery novel,” says Dorsey, who received the Tiptree, Crawford, and Aurora awards for her first novel Black Wine (1997).

“I really can’t remember when I added the overarching frame of the children’s poem, but it seemed to fit the tone. Nash was always rather sly about mixing the adult edge even into his children’s poems.”

Isabel is a novel that is both challenging and fun. “The book is going to challenge [readers] to think, but not before they have a lot of fun with the tone and the jokes. Obviously it has some things to say about feminism, bi erasure, systemic racism, and sexism, the nature of criminality, living in the inner city, the value and worth of people our society sees as throwaway,” says community advocate and activist Dorsey.

Candas Jane Dorsey
Candas Jane Dorsey

“The book is what it is because I am who I am. I started to write, and this is what came out.”

So far, there are three novels in the Epitome Apartments series. The second, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane?, is complete and will be published next fall. Dorsey, who has written “ten and a half” novels before this series, is currently working on the third in the series, He Wasn’t There Again Today.

“I had a hiatus from publishing but never stopped writing,” says Dorsey, who loosely set Isabel in Edmonton – although the city, like the protagonist, is never actually named.

Especially known for writing speculative fiction, this is Dorsey’s first foray into mystery novels. However, she emphasizes that even people who don’t care for mysteries will still enjoy the series.

“People who like mysteries will find them fun in one kind of way, and people who don’t like mysteries will find them fun in another way,” she says.

“Don’t think of them as mysteries – think of them as books Candas wrote, and see if you like them from there.”