About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sycamore Row - Winner of 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Earlier today, at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., it was announced that Sycamore Row by John Grisham was the winner of the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Grisham becomes the first multiple winner of the Award. He won the Prize in 2011, the first year it was presented for The Confession.

The Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is one of the few book awards that I am aware of that has criteria outside the quality of the book in the genre covered by the award. The judges for the Harper Lee Prize are to determine which of the books entered “best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.

The further criteria push readers to reflect on lawyers in contemporary society and what we are doing, or not doing, to effect change for the better though “for the better” is not a part of the criteria.

Last week I put up a post in which I considered the three books on the shortlist:

            1.) Sycamore Row;

            2.) Once We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson;
            and,

            3.) The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Stroud.

This year my choice for the winner is the same as the judges actually voting for the Award. I also thought Sycamore Row was the best book.

On the University of Alabama Law School website announcement of the winner Grisham, through his publicist who accepted the award for him, said:
 
        "My thanks to the committee for the selection of
        Sycamore Row," Grisham said. "I'm still admiring the
        first Harper Lee award. It's hard to believe there is now
        a second one. I am deeply humbled."
 
I hope Balson continues to write legal fiction. He made a fine debut with Once We Were Brothers. He joins another Chicago lawyer, Scott Turow, in writing good legal fiction. (Turow has not won the Prize and has not been on any of the shortlists.)

Had Once We Were Brothers been as good as Sycamore Row I would have chosen it as Grisham is already a winner of the Award.

I look forward to the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. It is becoming a highlight of my reading year to read the shortlist for the Prize.

Congratulations to John Grisham in 2014!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Russell Quant on Indefinite Hiatus

Interested in knowing what is happening with Anthony Bidulka and his sleuth, Russell Quant, as it has been quite awhile since the last mystery I exchanged emails with Anthony this week.

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Anthony,

I have been wondering about Russell Quant. It has been over two years since Dos Equis was published. Last year was the debut of Adam Saint in When the Saints Coming In and this fall The Women of Skawa Island will be released. Then I read you are working on a standalone book. There has been nary a mention of Russell.

Last year Metro News in Saskatoon published an article on an interview with you which contained the following paragraph:

While his focus is on his new character, Anthony Bidulka hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to the Russell Quant series someday. “I never say never, but for me the last book ended in a place where if that’s it for Russell, if we don’t meet him again, he’s in a positive place for him to be. But if I go back to it I think there’s a whole new direction to go with it.”

On your blog you did a poll that asked readers how long a series should last with the leading answer being as long as the series is good.

I admit I have been hoping to hear there would be more Russell Quant mysteries. There are a lot of places in the world he has not visited. Following you and Herb on Facebook confirms you are continuing to conduct abundant research on world destinations Russell could also travel to in further adventures.

I have always thought Russell could be involved in an adventure with his mother in the area of the family farm. With a significant number of Saskatchewan people traveling the world on agri-business I know you could come up with reasons for Russell to travel that involve the farm.

Secretly, I have dreamed Russell might have an adventure in which he comes to Melfort to see his sister who might have transformed her life.

Essentially I miss Russell. He had become a part of my annual to bi-annual reading. He remains young at heart and a witty companion.

Dos Equis may have ended in a “positive place for him” but to me he had been re-charged and was ready for new challenges.

If the end of the series has come I would be interested in whatever more detail you would be prepared to share to explain why you have decided not to write more Russell Quant mysteries.

Russell may be in a “positive place” but his author does not have to take him to a negative place to write more mysteries.

If Russell will be back I would be excited to know when we can expect a new book.

If you are willing I would like to post your reply together with this email.

It sounds like you and Herb and the dogs are having a good summer.

Best wishes.
Bill Selnes
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Hello Bill,

I hope all is well with you and Sharon and that you've been enjoying the glorious Saskatchewan summer.

Thank you for your note regarding the future of Russell Quant. Indeed, I too find myself missing Russell and Sereena and Anthony and Barbra and Brutus and the rest of the gang. Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn't ask the same questions you have; which is wonderful. I suppose all that is to be expected after 8 books and a decade of Russell Quant adventures.

I still stand by my never-say-never response which you quoted. For the moment, Russell continues to be on hiatus. I certainly appreciate your interest and the interest of other Quant readers in another book, but for the moment it is simply a matter of not having enough time to pursue all my opportunities and interests. When I began my career as a writer, having left a successful but time-consuming and sometimes grueling career as a CA, although part of the transition was the dream of attempting to write a book, it was also a personal promise to find better balance in life. If I spent more of my time writing, could I crank out another Russell Quant book? Absolutely. Do I have plenty of ideas for Quant stories? Certainly. But I never want to 'crank' out any book. Not good for readers, not good for me.

The time I spend writing continues to be - even fifteen years after I took my first steps down this path - a complete labour of love and joyfulness. I still can barely believe I get to do this every day.

So, Bill, this is a wordy response to your question, but for now I am finding my passion in investigating new writing projects, like the Adam Saint books and the standalone I am currently working on. When time and passion allows, I may revisit our good friend, Russell, and if that happens, it will be a joyous thing and it would be the best, dang Russell Quant book yet! In the meantime, I hope readers can enjoy the results of my current efforts. Similar to my career path, from farmer to shoe salesman to teacher to accountant to writer, change is a good thing.

Thanks again for the interest. Good to hear from you and happy reading.

Best
Anthony

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Art of Baseball Writing and the Art of Fielding

In my last post, a review of The Art of Hitting by Chad Harbach, I noted that I do not find a lot of sports fiction that I am interested in reading despite my love of sports. At the same time some of the finest writing I have read involves sports, especially baseball. It is generally recognized that much of the best non-fiction writing about sports features baseball.

Bart Giametti
Former Yale President, Bart Giametti, was President of the National League and briefly Major League Commissioner before he died of a heart attack at 51 in 1989. A devout Boston Red Sox fan he wrote a short essay in 1977 on baseball after another crushing end to the season for the Red Sox.

He starts the essay called Green Fields of the Mind:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone.

He continues with an eloquent description of how and why baseball fans love listening to the game on the radio:

I wrote a few things this last summer, this summer that did not last, nothing grand but some things, and yet that work was just camouflage. The real activity was done with the radio--not the all-seeing, all-falsifying television--and was the playing of the game in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind. There, in that warm, bright place, what the old poet called Mutability does not so quickly come.

Roger Angell
This past summer Roger Angell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York because of his wonderful graceful writing about baseball. I have read several of the books (four of them are on the shelf behind me) and they capture the flow of the game, the rhythms that are essential to baseball and the touch of the mystical at the heart of every baseball game. Now 93, Angell started writing for The New Yorker magazine in 1944 and became a fiction editor in 1956. He has been a baseball fan all his life and written about the game for over 50 years.

In The Summer Game he discusses being a fan:


This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.

Later in the book he also looks to the interior game:

Baseball has one save grace that distinguishes it – for me, at any rate – from every other sport. Because of its pace, and thus the perfectly observed balance, both physical and psychological, between opposing forces, its clean lines can be restored in retrospect. This inner game – baseball in the mind – has no season, but is best played in the winter, without the distraction of other baseball news. At first, it is a game of recollections, recapturings, and visions. Figures and occasions return, enormous sounds rise and swell, and the interior stadium fills with light and yields up the sight of the young ballplayer – some hero perfectly memorized – just completing his own unique swing and now racing toward first.

In a chapter from Late Innings he corresponds with a young woman from Montana whose husband is pursuing a distant dream of a professional career. Linda, with a Bachelor’s degree in the classics and a Masters in English, loves baseball. Angell records her talking about her husband’s quest:

“I get scared about the day when he can’t play ball anymore,” she said. “I get teary thinking about it sometimes. He couldn’t have planned his life any differently, but sometimes I wish he wouldn’t give up on himself so much. There a lot of other things he could have done. But if he’d planned his life differently I wouldn’t be around.”

Chad Harbach
Harbach is a worthy writer about baseball. He provided me with some memorable vignettes of the game in his fictional account of the Westish University Harpooners following Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, Owen Dunne and their teammates.

In his book The Art of Fielding Harbach quotes from the book The Art of Fielding (a book referred to within the book) by a fictional former major leaguer:

26. The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defence. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.

Mike on baseball: 

But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and needed to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, ….

After Henry stops eating and ends up in hospital:

“I told them only cheerleaders get anorexia. You’re a ballplayer – you’re having a spiritual crisis.”

Between my father, myself and my sons our family has been playing baseball for almost 100 years. I have written about our baseball experiences and some other summer evening will post some of my writing about the Selnes summer game.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – How many books a year sweep you up into the story? Books that draw you completely into the plot and lives of the characters. In a good year I hope for a handful. The Art of Fielding is a great book for me. I say for me because, though non-baseball loving readers will enjoy the story, it will resonate most deeply with readers devoted to baseball.

While the book is set in the 21st Century it took me back in my mind to when I was a teenager.

I was drawn in by young Henry Skrimshander, a slight shy teenage shortstop, for a Lankton (obviously modelled on Yankton) South Dakota team whose passion in life is playing shortstop perfectly.

Over 40 years ago I was a slight shy teenage rural Saskatchewan ballplayer who dreamed of playing ball.

Henry has practically memorized The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez (clearly Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio), a book on how to be an infielder by a major league shortstop. The book, filled with advice and aphorisms, reminded me of a real life book, The Art of Hitting .300 by Charlie Lau. Lau was a hitting guru revered by a generation of ballplayers.

When I was growing up on the farm I read everything I could about how to play baseball.

Henry has a glove so prized he can barely stand anyone, even teammates, touching it. He calls the glove “Zero”.

I valued the glove I had as a teenager and used it until the glove was falling apart.

Henry has barely made the team in each level of baseball. Only when coaches see what he can do on the field has he gained a spot on rosters.

I was never good for enough for school teams. I helped found teams so I could play ball.

At a tournament Henry meets Mike Schwartz, a big brash 20 year old catcher from Chicago, who after watching Henry field ground balls, conspires to get Henry admitted to Westish University on the shores of Lake Michigan where they can play together on the Westish ball team. Westish is a small liberal arts university near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Mike is a born leader who has faced difficult times in his own life. He loves books and baseball. He aspires to be a lawyer.

As I entered university I equally loved books and baseball.

The name of the university sports teams, the Harpooners, comes from a brief association the university had with author, Herman Melville. He had lectured once at the university. The institution honoured him with a statute on campus and chosen to name their teams drawing on Melville’s most famous book.

Moby Dick is one of the world’s great novels. The obsession of Captain Ahab has inspired readers for over 150 years. It is easy to see parallels in the quest undertaken in The Art of Hitting.

At Westish Henry builds his skills and Mike mentors him.

At times I was reminded of baseball classics such as The Natural and Shoeless Joe.

There is a mythic quality to Henry’s pursuit of baseball perfection and the opportunity for a professional career.

Henry and Mike are characters I can visualize on every page. The characters around them are equally memorable.

Neither life nor baseball are easy and the book chronicles the challenges as pressure mounts from Henry’s growing streak of errorless games and the relationships of various characters become complex.

It is Harbach`s great skill as a writer that he can make the coming of age experiences of Henry and Mike focused on baseball vivid and real. Harbach further adds interest and complexity to the plot with other characters. The book is rich in the university atmosphere and relationships outside baseball.

I primarily read crime fiction. I have not ventured into much sports fiction. It is hard to find a credible sports story with interesting athletes that has a balance between the too simplistic and too complicated. Last year and this year my son, Jonathan, has provided me with a memorable book that meets those requirements. In 2013 it was The Silver Linings Playbook. This year I thank him for providing me with The Art of Fielding.

Both Henry and Mike take me back to my youth. Henry is the ballplayer I could have been if I had superior athletic talent and Mike the popular captain with academic skills that I might have been with a different personality.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Choice for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction


The shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction has three books – Sycamore Row by John Grisham, When We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. In an exchange of emails with the University of Alabama I learned the winner’s name will be released at the same the Award is presented on August 28, 2014 at the National Book Festival in Washington. As I did last year I have read the shortlist. Unlike last year I have read them before the winner was announced.

For this post I will not try to create suspense. My choice if I were voting for the Prize would be Sycamore Row.

I found myself hesitating for a moment as Grisham has already won the Prize. Certainly the other authors could use the publicity of the Prize far more than Grisham. In the end, I concluded I want to make my decision based on the quality of the books rather than the fame or obscurity of the author.

The criteria for the Prize is that it is awarded each year “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.

It was a close decision for me. Both Sycamore Row and When We Were Brothers tackle big themes. Sycamore Row explores continuing racism in rural Mississippi and how the world of the Deep South is gradually changing with regard to race relations. When We Were Brothers examines alleged collaborator complicity in the Holocaust by a prominent Chicago businessman and philanthropist.

The Burgess Boys was out of the running for me. It delves into how a pair of New York City lawyer brothers, the Burgess boys, return to their Maine hometown to help their 19 year old nephew, Zack, who is facing criminal charges for rolling the frozen head of a pig through the local mosque. It was hard for me to see how The Burgess Boys “illuminated” the power of lawyers to effect change. Their primary legal strategy was to prolong the process.

In Sycamore Row lawyer, Jake Brigance, in the late 1980’s takes on the defence of a will providing most of a multi-million dollar estate of a white businessman to his black part-time housekeeper. A court action sees teams of big city lawyers descending on Clanton to challenge the will.

The book provides a classic example of the role in lawyers in society and their power to effect change. Rights and the rule of law are empty phases in our society if there  are no lawyers willing to take court actions to uphold rights and apply the rule of law.

Not long before the 1980’s Lettie Lang would have found it difficult to find a competent dedicated lawyer to represent her in what the community perceives as a conflict between whites and blacks.

Jake is bringing change, slowly but steadily, to an area of America still in the process of de-segregation during the 1980’s. Jake is working to convince the white and black populations of Ford County that legal decisions must be made on our Anglo based legal system not on the colour of a litigant’s skin.

In When We Were Brothers, Ben Solomon cannot pursue a war criminal six decades later except with the help of a lawyer willing to fight.

There is no practical way for an individual to take action in court with regard to a war crime. It requires at a minimum a lawyer, more likely a law firm, willing to commit at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and expenses with little probability they will be paid.

In the Nuremberg trials the Western world began to use legal structures to respond to war crimes. Where a victor’s justice had previously been exacted with summary trials and swift executions the criminal trials after WW II began the process of conducting fair transparent trials for alleged war criminals.

More recently courts have taken up the challenge in civil actions by ordering financial compensation to victims of war crimes. Solomon is on such a civil quest. Solomon has a compelling story reaching deep into the horrors of the Holocaust.

If only Balson were a little better writer and the dialogue sounded more natural. I found Sycamore Row the better written book.

In my choice I am in a distinct minority among readers of the American Bar Association Journal who voted 903 times as follows with regard to the Award:
  • Once We Were Brothers - 603 votes (66.78%)
  • Sycamore Row - 205 votes (22.7%)
  • The Burgess Boys - 95 votes (10.52%)
Their choice of Once We Were Brothers becomes a vote. It is counted as one of the 7 votes for the Prize. The six individual judges each have one vote.

I am looking forward later this month to see which book has won the Prize. 

 

 

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Wild Beasts of the Wuhan by Ian Hamilton

The Wild Beasts of the Wuhan by Ian Hamilton – The third Ava Lee mystery thriller starts with the Toronto accountant on a cruise in the Caribbean with her parents, sister, brother-in-law and nieces. Tension is high as mother and brother-in-law are in constant conflict.

When Uncle calls Ava asking her to come to Asia to visit the extremely wealthy Wong Changxing, the emperor of Hubei, little persuasion is needed. While Wong dislikes the title it reflects his prominence in the province of Wuhan. It will be a return for Uncle who had grown up in Wuhan.

Wong and his second wife, May Ling, are angry and embarrassed. Wong, a man of modest origins, built up an extensive collection of classic Chinese ceramics. He then fell in love with Fauvist (Impressionist) paintings and built a beautiful collection of 20 paintings. Where the Chinese collection was probably put together more for the status it brings than the love of ceramics building Fauvist collection reflects a more genuine appreciation by Wong for the paintings.

Unfortunately a majority of the collection is fake. Wong paid over $70 million for forgeries!

Wong and May Ling want Uncle and Ava to find the criminals and Wong will exact retribution. Return of the money is not his goal. Uncle and Ava are not willing to participate in such a scheme. Their business is the collection of money not killing. Uncle is ready to walk away.

May Ling convinces Ava to at least do some research into the fraud. Ava agrees to look into the con but it will not to be to identify fraudsters to be killed.

The trail is very cold as the Hong Kong broker, Kwong, through whom the Wongs bought the paintings died a few years earlier and his family destroyed all his records.

Starting with the basic strategy common to all fraud investigations, Ava looks to follow the money. While business accounting records may be gone there are other sources of financial information. Government tax records and accountants maintain their own documents.

Uncle’s web of Chinese connections soon allows Ava to search through the accounting records of Kwong. They make it clear that he was duped as much as Wong and was not part of the fraud scheme.

Those records take Ava to London and later to the Faroe Islands. The isolated Islands make them one of the most unlikely of locations in the world to be pursuing art fraud. Still Hamilton provides a credible reason for the investigation to travel to these remote islands in the North Atlantic.

Ava’s investigation takes her into the murky world of high value art. With millions to be made ethics are secondary and integrity but a word to be uttered to those collectors seeking reassurance when buying paintings worth huge sums.

The book further delves into complex Chinese family relationships. Ava is the daughter of the second wife of her father, Marcus. He has 3 wives. The first is his most public wife. At the same time he provides financial support for all of his wives and children.  The children are recognized as children of their father

Wong has a similar family also with three wives. In fact, each of the wives lives with their children on an individual floor of his 8 storey home.

While the relationships would seem likely to cause discord they appear to be successful plural families.

Unlike some of the earlier books in the series violence is not prominent. At the same time I was a little disappointed. It is really a grinding procedural with Ava moving from one lead to another. I should rejoice in the realism of the story but I did not find the sparkle of the earlier books. The Wild Beasts of Wuhan read easily but I expected more to the plot.

What was intriguing in the story is that Ava and Uncle are becoming more amoral in their collection business. They do not have the strong moral code Travis McGee followed in his salvage operations.

I will continue to read the series. Ava is a most intriguing character and I want to see how Hamilton develops her in the coming books.
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The Wild Beasts of Wuhan will be the 2nd of 13 books I have read in the 8th Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John Mutford as his blog, the Book Mine Set.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ranking the Shortlist for the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel

 
Over the past couple of months I have read the 2014 shortlists for the Canadian Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery Novel and the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. In this post I put up my analysis of the Arthur Ellis Award shortlist.

I was prompted to read the full shortlist as I only recognized one of the five authors on the shortlist and had not read any of the books listed. In a post after the shortlist was announced I took a look at the Canadian fiction I had read in the past year and wondered what could have been better than The Gifted and Stranglehold.

The first book I read on the shortlist was the Presto Variations by Lee Lamothe. It was a good book and I want to read more in the series set in a fictional (clearly Detroit to me) American border city with but a river separating it from Canada. The sleuths, Ray Tate and Djuna Brown, are intriguing unconventional police detectives.

The second was Walls of a Mind by John Brooke featuring French Chief Inspector Aliette Nouvelle. The book was set in the Midi of southern France. I found most interesting the interaction between the Chief Inspector and Agent Margot Tessier from the French Internal Secret Service (the DST). Nouvelle and Tessier clash constantly. I had not realized the power of the DST in contemporary France. They have unlimited power and need not to co-operate with the local police.

The most unique aspect of the book was Nouvelle being the first female sleuth of my mystery reading career to casually sun tan at the beach while topless.

Learning of the Nouvelle series through the nomination of Walls of a Mind was my find of the quintet. I will definitely read more in the series.

The third book I read was Miss Montreal by Howard Shrier. I had previously read two books in the Jonah Geller series and was not sure I would read another because of what I felt was excessive violence.

I was glad I read Miss Montreal. The violence quotient decreased and the plot was complex and interesting.

Not many mysteries tackle the intersection of the Jewish community in Montreal with Afghani immigrants and the proudly French descendants from Quebec’s earliest settlers. Shrier adds to the mix by going back several decades to the difficult relationships between Jewish Quebeckers and French Quebecois.

A reader will gain understanding of the dynamics of Quebec society as well as reading an excellent mystery.

The fourth was An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James and it challenged me as a work of romantic suspense. It is a sub-genre into which I rarely venture in my reading. When ghosts are added in I have even greater difficulty being objective.

Set during the 1920’s on the west coast of England the lovely young Jillian Leigh and the handsome Inspector Drew Merriken investigate the death of her Uncle Toby, a well known ghost hunter.

It is well written. I believe lovers of romantic suspense will enjoy the book.

The fifth was The Devil’s Making by Seán Haldane. In the late 1860’s newly graduated British lawyer, Chad Hobbes, sails to Victoria, British Columbia to make his way in the New World.

It is another book of interacting, sometimes clashing, cultures. The Victorian English newcomers uncomfortably deal with the Indian peoples of the West Coast, many of whom are still living a traditional lifestyle. The Victorians relate little better to the Americans who have also come to Victoria.

After considering the shortlist I would rank them:

1.) The Devil’s Making by Seán Haldane;

2.) Miss Montreal by Howard Shrier;

3.) Walls of a Mind by John Brooke;

4.) The Presto Variations by Lee Lamothe; and,

5.) An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James.

I happen to agree with the judges who chose The Devil’s Making as the winner of the Award. I appreciated its combination of history, culture and personalities. While Miss Montreal explores the same themes I thought they were done better in The Devil’s Making. Haldane did well in exploring a relationship between a white Englishman and an Indian woman while credibly working their relationship into the mystery.

I had thought about saying whether I would have replaced any of the shortlist with books I had read but decided not to at least this year. I am wrestling with whether it is unfair to say whether I would have chosen other books for the shortlist when I am not a judge and do not have time to read the long list. I am glad I read the shortlist and plan to do it again next year.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout – The third book on the shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is unlike any book of legal fiction I have read. The plot is neither about a trial nor about a single lawyer. It is about a pair of brothers, the Burgess Boys, from Shirley Falls, Maine who have become lawyers and live in New York City.

Jim, the older brother, gained fame for his successful defence of a murder charge against a popular black soul singer, Wally Packer, who had allegedly had his white girl friend killed. Think of a white Johnny Cochran. Jim is now a member of a prominent New York City law firm specializing in white collar criminal defence.

Bob, the younger brother, is a large shambling man living quietly who was not up to the stresses of trial work. He works for Legal Aid in the appellate division reviewing cases that are being appealed and writing briefs.

Jim is living with the lovely Helen and has 3 grown children. They reside in a fine home in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn.

Bob is divorced and childless. He lives in an apartment in the same area.

They are called back to Shirley Falls because of a family crisis. Their nephew, Zack, is the only son of their sister, Susan Olson. She calls in a panic as Zack has confided to her that he has rolled the frozen head of a pig into the local mosque during prayer. There is a large community of Somali refugees in Shirley Falls.

Blood from the frozen head has stained the mosque carpet requiring special ritual cleaning. Members of the mosque are upset.

The act gains national publicity as accusations of a hate crime flow out across America.

When Jim and Bob interview Zack they find an unhappy 19 year old boy locked into a job stocking shelves at Walmart and hanging out with a friend or two in town.

His uncles' characterize Zack's actions as a dumb joke. He did not know it was a mosque. He only knew Somali people went there. He does not know the provocation to Muslims inherent in rolling the pig's head into the mosque. Somalis speak of him as Wiil Waal – “Crazy Boy”.

Zack has not been in trouble with the law. He is terrified of going to jail.

While the public thinks he is a racist and intent on stirring up conflict between the whites and Somalis of Shirley Falls he is really a scared boy who was not thinking of consequences and had no intent to make any political statement. Later in the book his motivations become a little more complex but Zack is no agitator.

He is the type of person I have encountered throughout my life as a defence counsel. He is young and male and committed a stupid act that neither caused physical harm nor took money from anyone. He is a criminal until you meet him. Upon meeting you realize he could be almost any young man who acted foolishly in the wrong way.

As a prominent member of the legal community Jim has connections within the state Department of Justice.

Bob has compassion.

With the aid of a local defence lawyer they follow a common legal strategy. They set a trial date well into the future and look to make a deal when public furor has diminished. I pass on their legal approach as it is not a book whose plot is dependant on dramatic legal flourishes.

It was an interesting book but it did not read easily. All of the major characters have dreary lives and far more problems than joy. The public Jim is a friendly affable guy. Privately he is sarcastic and moody. Bob kind of muddles along lonely and tentative. Susan lives a life of mind numbing routine. Zack spends most of his time in his room. When the characters lack zest, let alone sparkle, I find it harder to enjoy the book. Other readers may find them intriguing. Many prominent reviews praise the book. I found the Burgess family sad.

I credit Strout for writing about a credible legal approach to a criminal case that avoids the national spectacle Zack’s case could have become were he represented by some defence counsel. Using time to defend Zack lacks drama but it is realistic.

I am not sure if I would read another book from Strout. The characters would certainly need to be less depressing for me.