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The Feast of Stephen

by Rosemary Aubert

In Rosemary Aubert’s new novel, some of Toronto’s most downtrodden citizens have been murdered and the police show no signs of concern. The investigation is left to a reluctant Ellis Portal, a former judge long fallen from grace. At the urging of his street friend, Queenie, Portal attempts to prove the victims have been murdered before the killer strikes again. What no one else knows is that Portal has received mysterious Biblical threats that echo the notes found with the corpses.

The Feast of Stephen is the second in a series of Ellis Portal mysteries by Aubert, a Toronto author and criminologist. Aubert has an interesting premise for a novel and she makes good use of the knowledge gleaned from her days working in the city’s largest courthouse at 361 University Avenue by setting much of the action there. Unfortunately, the novel lacks the tension and tight writing that make a good mystery.

Aubert’s strength is in creating interesting characters. Queenie, a Cree woman whose alcoholism led to her life on the streets, manages to survive with a quiet dignity. Her character is full of potential but is often left to flounder. Portal makes a unique sleuth with his knowledge of the law from both sides of the bench. However, Aubert weakens her sleuth’s credibility with clichéd statements. “When I’d been a judge, I’d considered every police officer honest, reliable, and helpful. My life on the skids had given me a slightly different perspective.”

Aubert sets up an elaborate and interesting red herring, but not only does it not lead our amateur sleuths on a wild goose chase (it actually helps them solve the murders), it is eventually dismissed so abruptly that one wonders if Aubert simply got tired of writing.

The Feast of Stephen introduces many interesting possibilities that ultimately peter out. The resolution of the mystery relies too heavily on a series of coincidences that stretch credibility and wraps up so cleanly that the ending leaves the reader feeling disappointed.