Mystery Down in the Don River Valley: Free Reign

freerAnother bit of work sneaking onto the list, this time in the form of Rosemary Aubert’s Free Reign. The novel features a disgraced lawyer now living in Toronto’s Don River valley who is called back up into the streets when he discovers a human hand with a special ring on it in his garden. Sounds like an interesting plot setup doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as a mystery/suspense novel, Free Reign does not quite live up to the promise it shows. For my own academic work, I am interested in how the Don River valley shows up in the novel so reading it was not a loss by any means. However, as a pleasure read, I’m not convinced that Aubert’s book works that well.

One of the primary rules of mystery/suspense novels is that they adhere to a high degree of verisimilitude. They must be believable even if the crimes/mysteries are often spectacularly sensational. By rigidly adhering to the rules of the actual world, a mystery novelist can then throw in some surprising events that become believable based on the previous work done by verisimilitude. In a way, fiction has to be truer to life than life itself. Read any tabloid and some of the crimes are so spectacular as to beg belief. The problem with Free Reign is not so much the fact that Ellis Portal, the disgraced judge, lives in the Don River valley (many of Toronto’s homeless live in this area – see this Globe and Mail story and this academic article for more), but more the manner in which everything gets conveniently tied up at the novel’s end. I won’t spoil the novel’s twist but the ending really does read like a Disney script. I couldn’t stand this and was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The other problem, at least for me, is that Aubert’s novel seems to be structurally flawed in a crucial way. Although the mystery of Ellis’s disgrace is alluded to early on and the mysterious hand appears in the first few pages, the actual source of mystery, a teen pregnancy hostel in a seedier area of Toronto, does not show up until later in the novel. When Aubert ties everything together, which is one of the more satisfying aspects of mystery novels, I felt like she had somehow cheated. For some reason, I feel that readers should be able to solve the crime/mystery as well but with this novel the timing of the appearance of the various parts of the mystery plot was off. Moreover, the novel itself sets up an interesting class critique but then goes on to completely nullify this by making the villains appear heroic or noble. The academic in me was not happy.

Overall, the novel does some very interesting things with the Don River valley and, for Toronto readers, Free Reign could be a fun read, matching a fictional narrative to actual places in city.

I would recommend this book for Toronto fans of mystery, but be warned that it leaves something to be desired.

Aubert, Rosemary. Free Reign. Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works Publishing Company, 1997. Print.

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