He Wasn’t There Again Today by Candas Jane Dorsey

He Wasn’t There Again Today by Candas Jane Dorsey is the third in a series of Epitome Apartments mysteries.  The protagonist-narrator is a compulsive fixer who owns a small apartment block called the Epitome Apartments.  They are a down-sized social worker of independent means, with a quirky fixation on grammar usage and a passion for ending homelessness in the city.  As a friend to a wide array of colourful individuals, they have facilitated a small tent-city encampment on their property.  

Recently bereaved, the protagonist/narrator mourns the loss of their partner Nathan, a brilliant inventor who has left sizeable bequests to relatives, with the bulk of the estate to be spent eradicating homelessness. Among Nathan’s inventions is a form of high-tech smart paper that appears blank to the naked eye but functions as an organic memory bank capable of storing holograms, videos and texts.  Its numerous applications are “unlocked” using keywords and phrases:

I handed Roger one of the octavo sheets of Lockstock, the bisecting of which had proved to me that the full-sized pages are holographic enough to be cut in half a couple of times and still retain their data and functionality…. This piece could at least be written on permanently, and it had a mark on the corner in teal Sharpie which indicated that we’ve found and transcribed contents… When you get as many gigabytes of storage on a tiny little chip as is possible these days, imagine how many gazillionabytes that could be, under the right circumstances, secreted in something the size of a piece of paper.  And it is recording us? Who knows.  It’s certainly capable… This stuff imitates cotton laid paper, basically.  Water-colour paper, or really fine stationery.  There’s a protocol that stiffens it up a little and another that makes it more floppy…

The plot of this detective novel is multi-layered and complex.  At its core is the settlement of Nathan’s estate.  Missing, however, are his passwords to key documents and, as a result, hundreds of pages of smart paper need to be decrypted in order to determine his express wishes.  When our narrator inadvertently swears at the cat, Nathan’s voice comes to them from a piece of the paper material to provide some important prompts.   Dorsey’s imagined smart paper is a clever and ingenious device that is entertaining and full of possibilities.  One can easily imagine a tech genius figure seizing upon the concept, copyrighting it, and attempting to actually fabricate it. 

As a featured sub-plot in the settling of Nathan’s estate, there is the double death of Lockwood Chiles.  Chiles has been convicted of murdering Nathan, as well as Nathan’s former partner, Pris.  Chiles is initially found dead in his prison cell and our narrator is briefly considered a suspect in his murder.  He is later found dead a second time, but this detail must be left untold so as not to spoil the story.  

A second (and almost thematic) subplot concerns police corruption and the appalling way in which the homeless are treated by the community.   Returning gangs of black-booted figures terrorize the tent-dwellers:

I heard the voices and I was already dialing 911 as I leaned out to see a group of men with tidy haircuts, nice bomber jackets, and big boots, looking weirdly foreshortened from the fourth floor, storming through Fleury’s camp, stomping the aluminum arcs of the tent supports, kicking the sleeping bags and plastic bags of belongings all over the alley.  Five.  No, six of them… 

It is in these sections, in particular, that Dorsey’s passion for social activism becomes most acutely evident.  Dorsey’s compassionate depiction of Fleury, for instance, demonstrates a sympathetic and benevolent attachment to individuals who might otherwise be deemed invisible or at least, insignificant.  The book’s title is derived from the poem Antigonish by William Hughes Mearns:  

When I was going up the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there!

He wasn’t there again today,

Oh, how I wish he’d go away!

The elements of a noir mystery that are so much a part of this novel, are often juxtaposed with the quality of the narrative voice itself, which is by turns serious, flippant, irreverent and given to interesting asides and footnotes that contribute to a sense of fun.  As a tale that is a successful blending of mystery, advocacy and speculative whimsy, He Wasn’t There Again Today is both accomplished in narrative and passionately clear-eyed in its call to end the problems it so articulately describes.

Candas Jane Dorsey is the award-winning author of Black WineA Paradigm of Earth, Machine Sex and Other Stories, Vanilla and Other Stories, Ice and Other Stories, and in the Epitome Apartments mystery series, The Adventures of Isabel and What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? She is a writer, editor, former publisher, community advocate, and activist living in Edmonton, Alberta.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ ECW Press (Oct. 10 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770415572
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770415577