home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the feast of stephen

7 may 2019

I'm still working my way through the mysteries in my public library, alphabetically. It's taken me seven months to get from Adams to Aubert, though that's still just 26 letters, and A hardly provides the richest lode of surnames.

Rosemary Aubert is a critically-acclaimed Canadian novelist, born in the US but long resident in Toronto. The Feast of Stephen is the second book in her Ellis Portal series, and won the Arthur Ellis Award (Canada's big crime gong) in 2000. I haven't read the first Ellis Portal novel (Free Reign). Aubert provides just enough backstory to intrigue the reader, but not enough to bore someone who'd read the first installment.

The Feast of Stephen's greatest strength is character development. Portal is a rich, contradictory human being at home in several worlds. Once a rising-star Toronto lawyer, then a young judge in the city's criminal courts, he has, somehow, precipitated himself into a life of crime, homelessness, and solitude. As our story opens, Portal has apparently squared himself with the authorities (in the first novel) by doing some amateur detective work. His friend Queenie, a streetwise frequenter of the courthouses, looks him up because her friends are dying – and because her friends are eccentric street people who hang around courthouses, nobody really cares. Portal, who knows both the justice system and the streets, is uniquely placed to find the killer.

I must say that the actual murder mystery in The Feast of Stephen is weakly constructed. Grim as the setting seems, the murders are relatively "cozy" and don't reflect wider societal problems or cultures of crime. The killings involve a literal puzzle, a cryptic crossword that charts the murderer's course across the court-groupie crowd; but the crossword, though it provides key clues, doesn't ring true. It is less exact, more impressionistic, than real cryptic crosswords. (And I have spent countless hours doing the Globe & Mail cryptics, so I speak with the authority of a true waster of time.)

The local color of Ellis Portal's world develops slowly, and isn't vivid. Yet Aubert gradually builds a believable human community full of individualists who exhibit dignity and form unlikely alliances. The Feast of Stephen is more worth reading as a book about little-seen sides of Toronto – or little-seen sides of the human heart – than it is as a classic whodunit. But it is well worth reading.

Aubert, Rosemary. The Feast of Stephen. Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works, 1999. PR 9199.3 .A9F42