August 9, 2012
On Inger Ash Wolfe and my career failure as literary sleuth
I thought I’d solved a literary mystery a few weeks back, completely by accident too. It was a Saturday morning and I was sitting at home in my pajamas putting up a new week’s main page at 49thShelf. A new book was out called A Door in the River by the pseudonymous Inger Ash Wolf, and the title seemed familiar to me. I could have sworn it was a song by Crowded House, which was intriguing. (Apparently if you want at least one reader and you want her to be me, you should name your next book Weather With You.) So I googled the title to discover that the Crowded House song I was thinking of was “Hole in the River”, but that was no longer the point once I’d stumbled on this page, a biography of Canadian writer Don Coles on the site “Canadian Poetry Online”.
Inger Ash Wolfe, until more recently than the Saturday morning I’ve been referring to, was the pseudonym of a well-known Canadian literary author, and Door in the River was his/her third Hazel Micallef detective novel. And, as I discovered from the Don Coles biography, “A Door in the River” was also the title of a chapter from an unpublished novel by Don Coles, a chapter that was published in The Tamarack Review in 1964.
A strange coincidence, I figured. What are the odds? Further, Coles and Inger Ash Wolfe share a publisher, which published Coles’ literary novel Doctor Bloom’s Story in 2004. Inger Ash Wolf’s name has its Scandinavian edge, while Coles has spent time living in Denmark and Sweden. And no one else had ever guessed! It was amazing. So obvious, staring us all in the face (as long as we were looking at the Canadian Poetry Online website). I realized that Don Coles was hardly the biggest name in Canadian literary authors, but then all the more reason for the mysterious alter-ego, no? Perhaps Coles had forgotten about the Tamarack Review publication, nearly 50 years ago, when he’d resurrected his long-unpublished novel as a contemporary mystery, and kept the old title. Or maybe it was a clue, that he wanted us to find it. That Don Coles wanted to be found.
Perhaps it was Don Coles himself who’d set me loose that Saturday morning. I got dressed and my family consented to have me leave them, because I was off to solve a literary mystery after all. I am fortunate to have the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library at the end of my street, fortunate to have its opening hours include Saturday mornings in the summer. I was even permitted to enter the stacks, because my part-time instructor status comes with a library card. And so up I went to the 13th floor, which was dark and empty save for two students checking Facebook. When I came to the shelf where The Tamarack Review was stored, the lights switched on above me, almost as though the library knew I was there.
It was even on the shelf, albeit dusty, the issue I needed, from Summer 1964. Don Coles had published as “D.L. Coles”, alongside such notables as Margaret Laurence and George Jonas (and just in case you wondered when I was going to bring all this around to gender, there were two women contributors to eight male). Such a triumph, the book in my hands bringing me one step closer to the mystery’s solution. I was high on the smell of the stacks, bookish redolence I don’t get to experience so much now that I’m out of school. I was imagining that I was Maud Bailey. I wondered if I’d become a little bit famous.
The story itself though didn’t fit so well into the scheme. It was curious that Wolfe’s story of a small down Ontario female police detective had originated with this story of a failed architect in Florence in 1960. Coles’ story was mysterious, surely, full of gaps, but it wasn’t a mystery. I wondered… The key, I decided, would be the door in the river image. In Coles’ story the door is as literal as it is symbolic, a drowned door in a river in Florence, half-submerged, and “around it were squares of masonry and odd chunks of chimney, all that was left of the quartiere vecchio that the tidily retreating Germans had blown into the river with the bridges sixteen years before…”
So you can imagine that I was gutted two weeks ago when Michael Redhill outed himself as Inger Ash Wolfe, completely thwarting my dreams of professional literary sleuthdom. It was doubly frustrating because it was so predictable; Redhill had been suspected of Inger Ash Wolfing for ages. Whereas no one had ever suspected Don Coles, and the 1960s’ Tamarack Review connection. But alas, the answer that would make the best story (written by me, of course) can’t always be the right one.