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Free Reign

by Rosemary Aubert

The premise of Free Reign is promising. Ellis Portal, a former judge, is one of Toronto’s homeless, living in the bush lining the city’s Don River Valley. One day, he finds a man’s amputated hand, wearing a ring Portal recognizes as one of five that he and four law-school classmates exchanged. But he and his colleagues were white; this hand is that of a black man. How did that ring get on that hand, and how did it end up buried near Portal’s shanty home?

Unfortunately Aubert, a Toronto criminologist and Arthur Ellis-Award-winning short story writer, doesn’t deliver the goods in this, her debut novel. The story gets muddied by clichéd writing, lapses in credulity, and tangents that go nowhere.

Portal sets off into the city, and the traces of his former life, in an attempt to solve the mystery. The trail leads him to a city newsroom, to the Queen Street red-light district, to a hostel for the homeless, and another for women. The foundation of a terrific story is here but the reader gets derailed by overblown writing: “Her fingers were long and slim. So were her nails. I wondered how she spent hours typing on her computer with nails like that. Maybe they were stronger than they looked. Maybe she was.”

Then there are those kiss-of-death moments when the reader knows that something isn’t right. A lone beat cop walks downtown alleys after 11 at night. A reporter, without asking what the story is about, gives Portal an appointment weeks away. A massive storm takes Toronto by surprise and drowns 70 people.

And in the space of a few pages, our homeless protagonist finds he’s not just respected again, but a hero; he’s still, unknowingly, a judge. He’s owed five years pay, and he is still adored by daughter and grandchild.

But the news about this book is not all bad. Aubert has created a truly interesting character and spun an inventive plot. She is said to be working on a sequel to Free Reign. Careful editing and a little reining in may be all this writer needs for a more successful second novel.