Recent novels by André Alexis and Suzette Mayr draw on genre fiction conventions in intriguingly plotted and intricately allusive works. The Hidden Keys portrays a Toronto underworld of thieves and thugs, and Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall satirizes the more gently cutthroat domain of academia. Race intersects with identity and place in complex and varied ways. Alexis assembles a multiracial and socio-economically diverse cast of characters scattered around Toronto, while in Mayr’s campus novel, white and colonial hegemonic power structures are stubbornly entrenched at the fictional University of Inivea.
The Hidden Keys, Alexis’s follow-up to Fifteen Dogs, is part of his planned series of five connected novels, each taking up a philosophical idea. Tancred Palmieri is a skilled thief with a rigorous sense of personal honour. After several chance encounters of varying degrees of intensity, he develops an affinity with Willow Azarian, an older woman whose drug addiction has alienated her from her siblings and diminished her once-formidable intellectual abilities. Willow is convinced that the objects bequeathed by her father to his five children are clues in an elaborate treasure hunt. She asks Tancred to retrieve them so that she can solve the mystery. In this psychologically astute novel, which Alexis identifies as a loose reading of Treasure Island, Tancred undertakes a quest that changes him more than he had anticipated.
Alexis depicts comically error-ridden heists mounted around the city. Tancred’s investigation precipitates encounters with a motley assortment of underworld tough guys, urbane businessmen, and poised society ladies. In these vividly realized minor characters, Alexis’s novel is reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen’s or Elmore Leonard’s mystery fiction. Below the surface-level pithy dialogue and rapid action is a thoughtful meditation on the lives we choose (or that seem to choose us). Identity, family, home, and belonging are carefully woven in Tancred’s musings and in the reflections of other characters. The humour in the dialogue-heavy work alternates between slapstick and irony, and Alexis’s witty aphorisms resonate beyond the experience of reading the novel.
Mayr also deploys comedy to good effect in her portrait of an anxious English professor. For the title character of Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, “post-tenure Elysium was a rabbit on a greyhound racetrack.” Instead of basking in the anticipated appreciation of her colleagues and students, Edith is beset by a series of woes, from a malfunctioning washing machine to marginalization at work. She hopes that her long-awaited book on “Beulah Crump-Withers, former sporting girl, then housewife, prairie poet, maven memoirist, and all-around African-Canadian literary genius,” will install the author in the canon while elevating her own academic status. Instead, her celebrated former doctoral supervisor joins the department; where she once attempted to quash Edith’s work, she now schemes to usurp it. Edith has few allies, and they are not faring any better than she is.
Mayr notes the divergent fates of academic disciplines under a neo-liberal regime of monetized research and corporate sponsorship. While the Engineering and Business faculties enjoy shiny new facilities, the Arts Faculty is housed in the maggot-infested decay of Crawley Hall, where more than the asbestos needs to be remediated. Edith is reluctant to acknowledge the mounting evidence of “possible paranormal phenomena” because “she doesn’t like having to believe in the supernatural, especially so early in the school year, and so early in the morning.” But as uncanny incidents multiply, it becomes increasingly clear that the building harbours dangerous secrets. Edith’s name conjures up both Shirley Jackson’s insecure Eleanor Vance, from The Haunting of Hill House, and the sturdier Harriet Vane of Dorothy L. Sayers’s celebrated academic mystery, Gaudy Night. Peculiarly menacing jackrabbits that have infiltrated the building and other references to Alice in Wonderland highlight Edith’s disorienting immersion in a world of arbitrary and punitive authority.
Notwithstanding the Gothic trappings, Mayr’s portrait of campus life is disquietingly familiar. This is higher-educational sociology as much as fiction, with Mayr’s protagonist grappling with the issues of overwork, diminished collegiality, and corporatized research agendas outlined in recent critiques, including The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber. Edith entered the profession because she loved books and wanted to share her passion. How did she end up hiding in the bathroom?