Free Reign

Overview

"Smart, suspenseful whodunit...unusual moral depth." —— New York Times_

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Overview

"Smart, suspenseful whodunit...unusual moral depth." —— New York Times_

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Ellis Portal, who only five years earlier was one of Toronto's most able and respected judges, is now a derelict living in a packing crate in a remote area of one of the city's parks. But a bizarre discovery forces him to confront his past. While preparing his illicit garden in the park, Ellis discovers a hand, severed at the wrist, wearing the distinctive ring of a secret fellowship to which he belonged. There were only five members, all white. The hand is that of a black man. Reluctantly and with justified paranoia, Ellis is drawn back into the society that branded him a felon, put him in a mental institution and precipitated his fall. To find a murderer, he forms a liaison with those he knows best, the homeless of Toronto, and teams up with a persistent reporter who has her own vital connections. Their prying leads them to a solidly funded and seemingly respectable halfway house for pregnant teenagers. Why have so many of them disappeared? How are his former friends, now in positions of considerable power, involved? Why Ellis chose to become an outcast is never addressed in a satisfying manner. But a truly frightening scenario unveiled by this introspective judge, a feisty reporter and an array of shrewd street people makes this mystery debut nearly irresistible. (May) FYI: Rosemary Aubert is a Toronto-based criminologist and the winner of the 1994 Arthur Ellis Award (the equivalent of an Edgar) for best crime short story of the year.
School Library Journal
YAThis title's setting and plot should attract YAs. The protagonist is a former judge named Ellis Portal; he is also a convicted felon. Isolated from his children and friends, he resides in a shack in a wilderness preserve that runs through the middle of Toronto. One day he finds a hand in his vegetable garden; on it is a ring that the man knows is one of only five in existence. A former law school associate had the rings made for himself and four classmates. This discovery and subsequent investigations yield a reconnection with "normal life," romance, and extreme danger. Aubert has written a good first novel; her premises are plausible; the introduction of environmental issues, homelessness, human isolation, and personal scandal are current and well presented; and her plot is well paced.Clodagh Lee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Thirty years ago, when they were all brash law school graduates, John Stoughton-Melville exchanged with his four best friends a promise that they'd each respond to an urgent appeal from any of the others, no questions asked—and sealed the compact with a gift of distinctive gold rings to each of the others. One of John's old friends was promptly killed in an auto accident; another went on to a successful legal career; another became his wife and partner in any number of high-profile charitable boards; and the fourth, Ellis Portal, ascended to the bench before being jailed for assault and leaving his judgeship for a life among Toronto's homeless. Now Ellis has found one of the rings, a mate to his own, on a severed hand that's turned up in a patch of land he gardens—a hand that, unlike any of the original five hands that sported those rings, is black. Unable to go to the police, Ellis goes instead to his friend Queenie on the streets downtown—and in no time he's gotten a whiff of much bigger trouble: the disappearance of several pregnant girls from the Second Chance hostel, whose board is graced by the presence of Supreme Court nominee John Stoughton-Melville and his fetching wife. Don't forget about those law-school promises; it's a cinch that John hasn't.

An offbeat and engaging hero (whose adventures the day he's dressed in his last good suit are worth the price of admission) presents his story with lacerating self-insight in Aubert's lyrical, powerful first novel.

Wall Street Journal
Engrossing...well-drawn charactrers, supple prose and effectively delivered emotional surprises.
Denver Post
Chosen as best mystery first novel of 1997.
— Tom and Enid Schantz, mystery columnists
The New York Times
A smart, suspenseful whodunit.
San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner
A most unusual and winning protagonist.
The Wall Street Journal
Engrossing...well-drawn charactrers, supple prose and effectively delivered emotional surprises.
Denver Post - Tom & Enid Schantz
Chosen as best mystery first novel of 1997.
The Barnes & Noble Review

From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


Every reader has a particular type of book they reserve for therapeutic use, and in my case that type is the mystery. Whenever I am sick, depressed, or overtired I roll out the murder mysteries and spy books, and they never fail to lift me out of the depths. About a month ago I felt mentally drained after having finished a long and very arduous writing job. And there at the bookstore, as if by karma, I spotted a long-forgotten favorite, Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) -- a gem from the Golden Age of mystery fiction that I had read as a teenager and not thought about again.

Anthony Berkeley Cox wrote lighthearted mysteries under the name "Anthony Berkeley" and darker ones under the pseudonym "Francis Iles." The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of the first category, one of those 1920s tales in which the genre attained a classical perfection. Roger Sheringham, an authorial alter-ego who takes center stage in several Berkeley novels, has gathered around him a group he calls the Crime Circle, intellectuals of various stripes whose combined brain-power, Sheringham is convinced, will succeed in solving murder cases that have stumped the police. The one in question here is an apparently straightforward poisoning. Evening after evening, each member of the Crime Circle in turn presents his or her solution, and with every presentation the level of ingenuity rises dramatically.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case appears under the imprint of the Felony & Mayhem Press, a company founded by Maggie Topkis in 2005 in response to a problem she perceived in the book industry. Mass consolidations of publishing houses had forced many classic titles out of print, and Topkis conceived the idea of getting the rights to a number of these titles and printing them in attractive but inexpensive editions. Her list has grown to over 100 titles and is divided into several categories: along with the Vintage group, which includes out-of-print favorites like The Poisoned Chocolates Case, these categories are Historical, British, Hard-Boiled, Traditional, Foreign, and Espionage.

I was pleased to see several of Edmund Crispin's works show up among Felony & Mayhem's Vintage titles, for I had always loved The Moving Toyshop but had never seen any other of his books, all of which were originally published in the 1940s and 50s, in print. His Oxford-don detective Gervase Fen is in fighting form in Swan Song, cleverly solving the locked-room murder of a most unpleasant opera singer. Another attractive Vintage detective is Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, a young-man-about-town who might outwardly appear to be as much of a nincompoop as Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster but actually possesses hidden mental powers. Felony & Mayhem has reprinted quite a few Campion titles; the one I picked up was The Case of the Late Pig, an entrancing rural murder and rather special in that it is narrated, for once, by Campion himself.

While I was engrossed in all of this there occurred a family crisis (not dire, but serious) that required me to spend long periods of time in hospital waiting rooms. Felony & Mayhem continued to provide the perfect distraction. I now turned to more contemporary works from the British, Traditional, and Espionage categories. Such Pretty Toys by S.F.X. Dean, first published in the 1980s and featuring his series detective Professor Neil Kelly (wonderful how many fictional detectives are university professors!) started out well but was ultimately disappointing. Dean is great at providing Jesuitical repartee for Kelly and his intellectual equals, but feebly resorts to stereotypes when depicting ordinary mortals. Worse, Kelly is an unappealing fellow and there is really no one in the novel who grabs our sympathy. In fact the only character I took a liking to turned out in the end to be the villain. Michael David Anthony's Midnight Come was more satisfactory, and will please most fans of traditional English murders: Anthony's detective, Richard Harrison, is an administrator at Canterbury Cathedral and his nosing about leads him to unsavory doings among Church of England higher-ups.

Tony Cape's The Cambridge Theorem was one of the real treats I discovered, though at first I was skeptical, for one would think that by now the fictional possibilities of the Cambridge spy ring -- Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt -- would have been squeezed quite dry: they have for so many years been the focus of a national obsession and there has been so much written about them. But Cape, who coincidentally wrote the novel just before the fall of the Berlin wall, managed to create something new and original around this shopworn subject. There has long been speculation about a possible "fifth man" in the spy ring, and one of Cape's characters, the mathematics student Simon Bowles, comes up with the traitor's identity. But before he can make his knowledge public the Soviet espionage machine goes into action and he is found dead -- to all appearances a suicide. Enter disaffected Cambridge CID man Derek Smailes, who can't quite buy this verdict. Cape knows his Cambridge turf, and he knows his espionage history; better yet, in Smailes he has created a genuinely appealing character whose personal problems are as compelling as the mystery itself.

Probably the most interesting category at Felony & Mayhem is the Foreign section, which publishes authors highly esteemed in their own countries yet hardly known over here. Rosemary Aubert's Free Reign starts well: Ellis Portal, once a rich and powerful Toronto judge, is now homeless and cut off from his family, living rough in a city park. Then one day he finds a severed hand wearing a ring exactly like his own; there are, he happens to know, only five of these in existence.

Aubert's plot is strong but she is not a skillful enough writer to really pull things off. Far better is Karin Alvtegen, Sweden's "Queen of Crime," who also has a homeless person at the center of her novel Missing. Like Ellis Portal, Alvtegen's Sybilla Forsenström once knew a life of privilege: she was the daughter of a wealthy provincial manufacturer. But the emotional cruelty inflicted by her parents drove her out into the streets, and now, in her early thirties, she scrapes a bare living which she supplements occasionally by tricking unsuspecting businessmen into buying her dinner and a night in a hotel room.

Then one of these men turns up dead, and Sybilla finds herself the chief suspect in a series of grotesque killings. Alvtegen alternates remembered scenes of Sybilla's traumatic, long-ago childhood with her suspenseful search for the true serial killer, making for a book that succeeds in being a real novel as well as a thriller. I am looking forward to reading Shame, another Alvtegen book published by Felony & Mayhem.

Finally, Esther Verhoef's Close-Up is one of several Dutch titles in the Foreign group. Like Alvtegen, Verhoef is a real novelist capable of delineating characters that transcend the standard thriller stereotypes, and her Margot makes an endearing heroine. At first Margot seemed such a sad sack that I nearly put the book down in disgust, but it soon became clear that, newly single and overweight, she is merely going through a bad time -- as all of us have done, if we are honest -- and when she meets Leon, a glamorous photographer, he helps her regain her sense of self. But is Leon the sincere friend and lover he seems? What is the truth behind the mysterious suicide of his last girlfriend? Just how much danger is Margot in? Sadly, Close-Up is the only Verhoef novel published by Felony & Mayhem, but there are several other tantalizing possibilities in the Foreign category that I can fall back on the next time I'm in need of refreshment and distraction.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781934609453
  • Publisher: Felony & Mayhem, LLC
  • Publication date: 11/25/2009
  • Series: Ellis Portal Series , #1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Table of Contents

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