Wolf by Kelly Oliver
My Rating: 3.5/5 TARDISes
Series: The Jessica James Mysteries Series
Date Published: June 1st, 2016
Publisher: Kaos Press
Pages: 316 pages
Synopsis: Montana cowgirl Jessica James is sleeping on a desk in the attic of the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University and she blames her advisor, Professor Wolfgang “Wolf” Schumtzig, “Preeminent Philosopher and World Class Dick-Head.” But when he’s found dead in his office, her real education begins. The murder weapon is a campus date-rape drug, supplied by the Russian mafia—and Jessica could be the next target.
Dmitry Durchenkov is trying to live a normal life as a janitor at Northwestern after escaping Russia with part of his father’s mafia fortune—which has suddenly disappeared. Jessica and Dmitry team up to wrangle mobsters, encounter a trio of feminist avengers, and lasso frat boys in order to rope in a murderer who’s read too much Existentialism. Together, the brooding Russian and the cowgirl philosopher learn that sometimes virtue is just the flip side of vice.
*I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*
This is a spoiler-free review.
Wolf is pitched as being a crime novel that tackles some important issues using a good dose of intelligence, humor, and feminism—and it certainly lives up to these claims. Despite my love of the mystery genre, I was a bit unsure whether or not this particular combination of themes would really be my type of story. However, Kelly Oliver’s clever writing managed to erase all of my hesitations. Though some parts fell a bit flat or lacked believability, it turned out to be a very enjoyable read as a whole. I ended up getting completely swept up in the suspense and wit of this novel.
Throughout the duration of the narrative, we follow the lives of two characters. Jessica James, hailing from Montana, is pursuing her PhD in philosophy at Northwestern University when her advisor, Professor Wolfgang Schumtzig is found murdered in his Philosophy Department office. Dmitry Durchenkov, the university’s janitor, finds that the past he fled his homeland of Russia to escape is finally catching up with him, and at the worst possible time. Existentialism, murder, date-rape drugs supplied by members of the Russian mafia, and even the disappearance of famous works of art tie these two lives together in intriguing and unexpected ways.
Kelly Oliver takes some incredibly difficult topics and tackles them in a mature and respectful way. She carefully injects the humor into the story, giving the darker aspects of the plot the gravity that they deserve. There is never a moment where it seems as if the more serious moments are being taken too lightly. I appreciated how she focused on educating her readers about very relevant issues. On top of this, Oliver also adds quite a deal of philosophy and art history into the story, which I was very interested in. From her intelligent writing, it is easy to tell that she is well informed on all the subjects that she covers.
I’ll admit, I had a little bit of trouble getting into this novel to begin with, as the first fourth or so of the novel is much slower paced for the most part. This is primarily due to the fact that there is a lot of setup and familiarizing the reader with the characters rather than focus on action and the mystery unfolding. This is completely understandable, especially given that it is the first novel in a series, so even though it was slow going for me for a little bit, it did not by any means put me off the story.
I think that this initial sluggishness I experienced was magnified due to the fact that the narrative jumps between the two main characters. The entire novel is told in third person, but it switches back and forth between the storylines of Jessica and Dmitry every chapter or so. It takes some time to make significant progress in each storyline and for them to weave together. This causes the main body of the novel to be quite fast-paced, but sort of puts the brakes on things when it comes to the setup.
Writing a novel using this method can be fantastic for developing a feeling of suspense, but is also tricky to perfect. I found that the constant shifts sometimes caused me to feel that the narrative was becoming a bit jumbled. However, this did not detract from my reading experience too severely, particularly as I got further in. Once you get to know the characters, it is extremely easy to get caught up in their lives, and I tore through most of the novel.
Oliver juxtaposes the humor and awkwardness of Jessica’s life with the pain and fear plaguing Dmitry’s in order to create an ultimately gripping and unified plot. As a whole, she created the desired tension by leaving the reader wanting more at the end of each character’s contribution to the progression of the storyline. When it becomes fully apparent how closely these two lives are connected, the story picks up very quickly. For some reason, I was not expecting this link between them, and was pleasantly surprised with the direction that Oliver took it in.
This book is filled with a diverse and quirky cast of characters, all filled with a great amount of inner strength. I found the characterization to be an exceptionally strong point. Jessica is a great example of how to create a female protagonist. She is funny and delightfully awkward, while also being a very intelligent and independent heroine. Dmitry shows his strength in a different way, fighting to move forward from a troubled past that won’t let him go.
I think Lolita ended up being my favorite character in the novel. I love what a strong woman she is and how much she cares for and supports her friends and family. All of the primary characters are fully formed and multidimensional, each showing some amount of progress throughout the novel. No matter what their personal story holds or what struggles they are facing, each character does their part and is working hard to be the best version of themselves that they can be—someone they are proud of.
There is also a major focus on relationships between friends and the importance of family rather than on romance, which is an aspect of this novel that I found to be quite refreshing. The friendship between Jessica and Lolita—the way they look out for and support each other—is absolutely lovely and shows the strength that can be produced from that sort of companionship. Dmitry’s devotion to his family and the lengths he goes to in order to keep them safe is quite beautiful, adding both more dimension and a greater sense of urgency to his struggle.
The small amount of romance that is present, though I really wanted to like it, fell sort of flat for me. It felt a bit forced and at times confusing, so I do wish that it had either been addressed a bit more or left out completely. But this was the only area of issue in the portrayal of relationships and the theme of love. Overall, the dynamics and interactions between the various characters added more depth and meaning to the story, and was one of the strongest and most captivating aspects.
Wolf is a novel with a lot of heart and a good sense of humor, despite its fairly dark subject matter. With smart and skillful writing, vividly depicted characters, and an addictive plot, it proves to be quite a rousing read. Kelly Oliver has created a unique and memorable mystery that both educates and entertains. I am incredibly eager to continue on with this series, and look forward to seeing the ongoing adventures of Jessica James. I would definitely recommend giving this book a try.