LET'S BE practical. We live in a literary world where, broadly speaking, fiction garners the accolades while non-fiction makes the bucks. Is there a writer of fiction who hasn't been urged to make at least a temporary switch to non-fiction by her or his loved (lies, publishers, or last but indubitably loudest -- creditors? I doubt it. On the other hand, human nature being what it is, the majority of non- fiction writers must yearn to be acknowledged for their literary skill. All this would help explain the meteoric rise of something called "creative non-fiction," which, as far as I can make out, is ordinary non-fiction with literary additives, like a breakfast cereal with vitamins.
But literary cross-dressing can work both ways. Take, for example, Tony Aspler's new mystery novel, Blood Is Thicker than Beaujolais. You can learn as much about the production of new Beaujolais from this novel as you could from many a wine manual, with fictional entertainment thrown in. Aspler, who's well known as a wine writer and expert, and who's already penned six other works of fiction (three of them with Gordon Pape), treats a Subject tailored to his talents in this novel set in the wine country of France. Ezra Brant, noted Toronto wine journalist, drives to the village of Haut de St. Antoine in Beaujolais, where he is to he inducted into the Confrerie des Compagnons du Beaujolais and cover the Beaujolais Nouveau Race for his newspaper. Accompanying him is his wife, Connie, who resents Ezras interest in wine and is humiliated when he chugalugs an urnful - to tumultuous applause -- during the induction ceremony. She's even more upset when he discovers a murdered woman in a wine cellar and gets himself on the local police chief's list of principal suspects.
Ezra, however, has a nose for mystery as well as wine. He's also the only person who can clear suspicion from another Suspect, who has disappeared. So stubbornness, combined with a keen sense of injustice and his commitment to writing the story of the race, involves Ezra ever more deeply in village affairs. When his car tires are slashed, lie borrows a bicycle. He survives two attempts on his life. He even persuades the fractious Connie to do some sleuthing for him in Paris.
Aspler's own expertise as a wine writer makes this an exceptionally solid story, but he's on thinner ice with his characters. Though well-delineated, they're Uniformly unlikeable, which keeps the reader at arm's length from them. And the plot is so complex that the reader can only sit back and watch as Aspler reveals it; one senses that the story is being expounded rather than narrated. The biggest mystery in Blood Is Thicker than Beaujolais, however, is how it reached publication without any apparent assistance from a copy editor.