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.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Big Empty by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts

The Big Empty by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts - Nathan Active, Chief of Public Safety in Chukchi on the northwest coast of Alaska, and Cowboy Decker investigate an airplane crash that killed the pregnant Evie Kavoonah and her fiance, Dr. Todd Brenner. Decker cannot believe the official investigation finding of pilot error because the airplane ran out of gas. He knows the plane was fully fueled. When Active and Decker actually carefully examine the plane, unlike the Federal inspectors, they find balloons filled with water in each wing’s fuel tank. The balloons have meant the gauges show full but the tanks were about one-quarter full.

Decker was to fly the plane which crashed until a late switch with Evie. There is no obvious suspect with a grudge against Decker. Evie and Brad were a popular couple.

Looking out at the runway Active realizes the balloons in the tank could be weather balloons lofted into the sky daily at Chukchi to record the weather.

The investigation concentrates on those who would have access to such balloons and their relationships with the deceased.

At home Active and the beautiful Grace, now his wife, are expecting their first child. Grace, still deeply scarred by the sexual abuse of her youth and her turbulent time in Anchorage as a young adult, has hesitated to get pregnant. She has frequent mood swings as she thinks about the baby. When down she wonders whether to carry the baby through to birth.

Active and Grace have adopted 13 year old Nita. They are adjusting to the challenges of parenting a teenager uncertain of her status in the family as an adopted child. The emotional issues for Grace are extreme. Nita is actually her daughter and Grace’s father is Nita’s father. Active and Grace have never told Nita.

Relationships are at the heart of the book. Hearts have been broken and bitterness abounds.

While Chukchi is “dry” abuse of liquor is all too common with all the inevitable corrosive consequences.

When a suspect dies the investigation grows complicated.

A potential witness abandons work to hunt caribou. While employers grumble it is a tradition for Inupiat to go into the country after caribou when word reaches town they are in the area.

It is a darker mystery than earlier Active books. There is a shortage of the sarcastic / ironic humour of the indigenous people that enlivened previous books. I wish there had been more of the celebrations of Inupiat life featured through the series. It is hard to find a character in The Big Empty who is enjoying life. Even Active and Grace, having made the commitment of marriage, are more unhappy than I expected with their lives. While set in the fall the plot would have been well suited to the 24 hour darkness of Arctic winter nights.

I have appreciated the time spent out of Chukchi during the series. I find the trips and experiences in the bush more interesting than time spent in town. With money scarce town life is grim for most residents. I hope the next book is lighter. Whether there will be another is left uncertain by the ending.
Jones, Stan – (2009) - White Sky, Black Ice; (2010) - Shaman Pass; (2012) - "J" is for Stan Jones; (2013) - Frozen Sun; (2013) - Q & A with Stan Jones on Nathan Active and Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte - Part I and Part II; (2015) - Village of the Ghost Bears; (2015) - Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series; (2016) - Tundra Kill and An Exchange with Stan Jones on Sarah Palin and Helen Mercer and Governor Sarah Palin and Red Parkas;

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

(6. – 1031.) The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison - 

Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling. “Bishop’s wife” isn’t a position listed on ward documents; there’s no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop’s wife is the mother, and that meant five hundred people who were under my care ….. I was  used to being looked past, because I was never the person they were there to see.

In Draper, Utah Linda is the wife of Bishop Kurt Wallheim. They have 5 sons.

At 6:30 in the morning a distraught Jared Helm arrives at their home with his 5 year old daughter, Kelly. He is a rigid righteous man. He advises his wife, Carrie, has left him. Linda is grateful her husband told him “he wasn’t to blame for what happened, and that God still had good things for his future” rather than demand that they reconcile.

The Wallheim’s are part of a devout Mormon community where public and private life focuses around their faith. She is Sister Wallheim using compassion and applying logic to the concerns of the women of the ward. She reassures a mother worried that her daughter’s marriage in the church rather than being sealed in the Temple will both affect the daughter’s reputation and eternal salvation. Linda points out the sealing can take  place in a year or even after death if her daughter should be tragically gone.

I know little of Mormon faith and practice. I learned a lot in this book in the same way I learned about Judaism in the Rabbi Small series by Harry Kemelman.

The responsibilities of the Bishop and his wife are unending. The Bishop carries out these duties while working full time for the position is unpaid. Kurt is an accountant. His anticipated term of bishop is 5 years.

Linda is a woman of deep faith. She believes in God despite having doubts. She has reflected and prayed and remained a believer and a committed Mormon. She does chafe over aspects of Mormon doctrine such as “the power and authority from God that was bestowed on men of the right age and worthiness”.

There are deep personal connections within the ward. They care and help each other. For some people I expect it would be smothering. The connections reminded me of growing up on the farm where there were close bonds with neighbours.

Linda is a touch restless. With only one son left at home she finds herself bored. Reading crime fiction is not enough to fill her time.

She is shaken when Carrie’s parents come to the house and advise Jared was abusive and controlling and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him. Jared has “strange ideas” such as believing he “could make a list of women who would be his in the afterlife”.

The plea of Carrie’s mother that Linda find her missing daughter stabs Linda’s heart. Linda continues to grieve the loss of her stillborn daughter two decades ago.

Jared’s father, Alex, is as righteous as his son and certain Jared has been wronged. He is unrestrained in his condemnation of those who know and then reject the “full truth of the gospel”. They are “sons and daughters of perdition”. He states 5 year old Kelly must be “taught her place now” for he “won’t be the grandfather to a little whore”. Linda slaps his face.

At the same time another ward member, Tobias Torstensen is dying. With mysteries surrounding the death of his first wife and unexplained items, such as an old pink dress tinged with what appears to be blood, Linda cannot help but wonder if there was a violent end to that relationship.

While delving into the first wife’s death is interesting what is compelling are Linda’s deep and emotional talks with Anna, the second wife, over relationships before and after Tobias dies. They are intense vivid discussions in which Linda, for the first time outside her family, shares her sorrow over the loss of her daughter.

There are wonderful scenes where Linda talks with her sons about their lives and their faith. I can think of few series beyond Gail Bowen’s books featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreeve that have these very real discussions, especially concerning faith, between family members as a part of the mystery.

I was struck by the number of women who live out their faith in the book. I believe too few mysteries explore the lives of women who believe in God. They have problems but are neither flashy nor dysfunctional. Harrison shows how their lives are fulfilling in an age where they get little recognition.

And then everything about Carrie and the past of Tobias is turned upside down.

The issue of domestic violence is often complex. Harrison’s continual examination of relationships challenges a reader’s assumptions.

I was disappointed that she put herself in danger. At the same time it allowed a powerful conversation with the killer. I cannot recall another work of crime fiction in which the sleuth discusses eternity with a killer.

Linda is a woman with whom it is easy to share as she listens and she cares. While her deepest conversations are with other women she is open to the confidences of men. I wish I could talk to her.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke - Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews, is working on relationships. He has returned to working in the Houston office which pleases his wife. He is helping his mother which pleases her and keeps her from revealing what Mathews’ knew about a handgun used to kill a white supremacist. He is also deeply bored and increasingly anxious. Mathews is one of the few black Rangers.

His Mama, Cassie Bell, makes clear she is protecting her dear son as long as he keeps providing financial assistance. The maternal uncertainty is draining.

In the first book of the series, Bluebird, Bluebird, Mathews faced the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. In a stunning twist he is now asked to investigate a missing 9 year old boy, Levi King.  Levi’s “father Bill ‘Big Kill’ King - is an ABT captain doing a twenty-year bid at the Telford Unit up near Texarkana on a slew of drug-related charges. Sales, production, armed robbery, the works.” Levi is well under way to a racist adulthood.

With Big Kill locked away for decades Mom, Marnie, has taken up with a low level loser, Gil Thomason. Big Kill does not want his son near Thomason.

Having grown up in a household of romantic turmoil Mathews can appreciate Levi’s struggles with  tangled parental problems.

The Rangers and the FBI have been building a major case against the Brotherhood and want to get the evidence needed to indict before President Trump is inaugurated. They are uneasy the federal government will not be pursuing violent white supremacists.

At the same time federal law enforcement would be content, even glad, to see a black man convicted of killing a white child to show the new administration they are race neutral.

Sending a black man to lead the investigation of the missing child of the Brotherhood sounds like a bad, even crazy idea even if there are some black people who need to be interviewed. 

Big Marnie and Levi live deep in the woods at Hopetown, a community not on the map, on the edge of the massive Caddo Lake. They are proud public racists subleasing land owned by blacks. Hopetown is a fading community founded by free blacks after the Civil War. 

Bill Kill’s mother, Rosemary King, lives in splendour in the largest house in Jefferson and owns the Cardinal Hotel, the pre-eminent hotel in Eastern Texas for over 100 years. She has never had a black guest in her home until Mathews visits with the local Sheriff.

As with Geneva Sweet in Bluebird, Bluebird Locke has created another matriarch who fills pages with her presence. Unfortunately, Rosemary’s role in the book is mainly in the shadows.

Mathews marriage to Lisa remains fragile. When he needs to talk about his feelings he reaches out to Randie Winston, the widow of a victim in Bluebird, Bluebird. He wants his marriage to succeed but does he want it enough? 

His drinking is barely under control.

The relationships between white and black and Indian (there are also Caddo Indians resident at Hopetown) Texans intersect historically and currently. Resentments and racism are a constant presence. Relationships confound. And then financial issues intercede. Mathews is having doubts about following the rule of law in contemporary America. Maybe personally administered justice is better. 

The question of whether a devout racist can change is a challenge for Mathews.

Heaven, My Home draws readers into the racial complexities of rural East Texas. Finding what happened to Levi will answer many questions but no authorities other than Mathews are truly searching.

A great series is under way with Daren Mathews. The land, history and people of East Texas seep into every page.
Locke, Attica - (2016) - Pleasantville; (2017) - Black Water Rising and Wishing I had Read the Books in Order; (2018) - Bluebird, Bluebird and The First Black Texas Ranger in Real Life and Fiction

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré - Nat, christened Anatoly, is a 47 year old recruiter and runner of spies that British Intelligence no longer needs in the turbulent capitals of Eastern Europe during the third decade of the 21st Century. With Russian / Scottish heritage he has spent his career in and around Russia. I feel old when I realize Nat spent his entire career engaged in espionage with post-Soviet Russia.

His innate charm and skill at badminton (inherited from his father) are appreciated in the Office but not enough to keep him an active spy runner abroad.

A new member of his athletic club, the gawky and earnest Ed, challenges Nat, the club champion, and they start a series of badminton games. Ed is fiercely anti-Trump, despises Brexit and sees the British Establishment as hopelessly corrupt.

Nat’s former superior in Budapest, Dominic “Dom” Trench, now head of London Central, offers Nat the position of head of substation Haven. A successful stint and both of them may be bound for the coveted Russia department.

Nat’s wife, Prue, a human rights lawyer has spent most of his career in England with their daughter, Steff. She would prefer he depart the Office but is resigned to Nat being unready to leave the world of espionage. 

In a fascinating exchange on the ski slopes of Switzerland Nat explains to Steff he is a spy. Steff, with all the self-righteousness of a zealous university undergrad, questions why he spies for a nation about which he acknowledges “serious reservations” concerning the government. Later Steff is furious with her mother for not telling her of Dad’s occupation.

By contrast, his second at the Haven is Florence, a second-year probationer needing seasoning. In accent and manners she is clearly a member of the upper classes. Determined to succeed as a spy she has already recruited the mistress of a Ukrainian oligarch with close connections to Moscow. She proposes a surreptitious entry to his lavish residence.

The remaining staff are either like Nat, at the end of their careers, or Florence, newcomers to the service. Nat and Florence are unlike their colleagues in still having ambitions to move ahead in the Office. 

The plot swiftly shifts its focus when administrative decisions do not approve the operation.

When a young Russian sleeper agent, who had defected on his arrival, is activated by Moscow Nat, using all his skills, sees a great opportunity for an intelligence coup. Adept at navigating bureaucracy he places himself at the centre of the operation.

I was startled when British intelligence tasks 100 men and women to an operation to covertly observe an anticipated meeting with a prominent English mole.

Nat’s world comes crashing down when the meeting takes place. It was a brilliant twist I had not seen coming in the plot. And then there was an even more brilliant twist. I was reeling about what would come next in the book.

Agent Running in the Field has so many layers. There are connections between agents, formal and informal, from the intelligence agencies of friends and foes. There are fierce inter-office rivalries. There are complex relationships between the British Establishment and British intelligence. There are friendships, as much business as personal. There are families wrestling with how spy and non-spy family members deal with spying being a family business. There are subtle and direct examinations of the current moralities of England’s democracy and Russia’s dictatorship. There are unexpected personal relationships with startling consequences. And there was not a conventional Le Carré ending. I was glad I was given the book as a Christmas present.
Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré; (2016) - The Night Manager and The Writing of and Reaction to The Night Manager and The New Night Manager T.V. Series

Friday, January 31, 2020

Accountability for the Black Watch Disaster of July 25, 1944

In my last post I reviewed David O’Keefe’s fine book, Seven Days in Hell, about Canada’s Black Watch Regiment and their devastating week in July of 1944. The week ended with a suicidal attack by the 1st Battalion in which 296 out of 320 soldiers were killed or wounded or captured. Beyond the commanding General, Guy Simonds, it was hard to find anyone that day who actually thought the attack could succeed. The Black Watch was to proceed up and over a ridge through a wheat field. Circumstances had delayed the launch of the attack by 4 hours to the full light of mid-morning, both the commanding officer and second in command were casualties earlier that morning, the tanks to accompany the battalion were not in place and artillery support was limited. Yet no one was prepared to disobey the order of Simonds to press on and attack. 

On the other side of the battlefield the North Nova Highlanders and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders did not follow Simonds’s order to undertake an attack “refusing to reinforce obvious failure”. Simonds “sacked the 9th Brigade commander and the battalion COs”. Their refusal did prevent another disaster.

As set out in the previous post, Black Watch pride and sense of duty would not let Major Griffin, in command of the 1st Battalion for but a few hours, refuse the order to attack.

While the commanders of the Canadian Army tried to contain news of the disaster news reports from war correspondents and the hundreds of telegrams flooding Montreal meant the scope of the disaster was soon known.

As common, it was not until after the war ended that accountability was addressed for  what Private Gordy Donald bluntly stated:

“A lot of men got killed over somebody’s stupidity - for not knowing enough to say when. The attack, one, should never have taken place, and when it did, it should have been stopped.”

Simonds took no responsibility. Not realizing Ultra secret information would be declassified he asserted he did not know of German reinforcement of the ridge shortly before the attack. He actually knew well before ordering the attack of the German reinforcement.

He also blamed Major Griffin, who died in the attack and thus could not reply saying the attack “was tactically unsound in its detailed execution”. But there was no “execution” that could have changed the result of the attack. It was a certain disaster. No doubt unintended, Simonds’s use of the word “execution” in the context of the attack was too apt.

O’Keefe concludes his assessment of Simonds as follows:

But what is inexcusable, and can only be interpreted as an egregious act of cowardice and disloyalty to his subordinates, is Simonds’s choice to turn his back on the men who faithfully obeyed his authority and executed his plan as prescribed. Sadly, as he had done in the past with other of his flawed plans and misadventures, he wilfully offered up Griffin and the Black Watch (among others) as the sacrificial lambs for his failure on July 25 to protect his career and reputation.

In 21 Days in Normandy Angelo Caravaggio studied the actions of the Canadian 4th Canadian Armoured Division and its leader, Major General George Kitching, in the battles, Operations Totalize and Tractable, a few weeks later in Normandy. These battles closed the Falaise Gap. The Canadian army has long been criticized for the time it took to complete the closing.  Simonds relieved Kitching of his command at the end of those battles. Caravaggio considered the decision wrong.

He summed up his judgment of Simonds:

Simonds’ ideas resulted in centralized planning, control at the highest level, staff management of the battlefield, reliance on indirect fire support, little consideration of the concept of manouevre, and cautious exploitation. There was little room for flexibility, initiative, originality or the modification of the plan to meet the emerging demands of the battlefield. If the plan failed, the blame was pushed down to the units and commanders involved.

Brian Reid, in No Holding Back a book on Operation Totalize provided his own observation on Simonds and responsibility:

When things went awry, as they invariably do in war, it was always the fault of others for not being able to execute his plan exactly as written. That is not to suggest he was a knave or a fool, far from it.

Simonds commanded 2nd Canadian Corps through the end of war. In Cinderella Army - The Canadians in Northwest Europe 1944 - 1945 Terry Copp writes about the Canadian army after Normandy through to the end of war. In contrast to Caravaggio and O’Keefe he praises Simonds:

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds can fairly be described as the outstanding corps commander in 21 Army Group. Simonds lacked the human touch that distinguishes great leaders, but no other corps commander displayed such technical competence and flexibility.

On what Simonds might have said about his role in the Black Watch debacle General Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded all the Allied forces for Western Europe, wrote a letter as D-Day began on what he would say if the invasion failed:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

That is a leader.

An earlier example involves another famous American general. Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs after the American Civil War discussing the disastrous attack by Union forces on fortified Confederate positions at Cold Harbor:

"I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made … No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained." 

Both American generals became Presidents.

While Simonds may never have taken responsibility for the fiasco of the Black Watch attack Copp further states:

Simonds also had the good sense to try and turn Montgomery and Crerar away from costly frontal assaults in the Rhineland by proposing an alternative, Operation Wallstreet. On many other occasions Simonds demonstrated a commonsense approach to problems and a genuine concern for preventing the waste of young lives.

It is a cruel irony if it took the sacrifice of the Black Watch for Simonds to avoid “the waste of young lives” in subsequent battles.
O'Keefe, David - (2020) - Seven Days in Hell

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe

Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe - When I saw this book in bookstores before Christmas I hesitated to buy the story of Canada’s Black Watch Regiment in battle in Normandy in July of 1944. I have long been interested in the Canadian Army in France but I knew from other books they had been decimated in that week. I was not sure I wanted to read the details of that deadly week.  And then I was given the book as a Christmas present from my sons. Once I started reading I was caught up in the drama of the Black Watch. O’Keefe is superb at narrative and maintaining the momentum of the book.

I knew little of the Black Watch beyond it being considered an elite regiment until I read O’Keefe’s book. While the regiment had members from across Canada the Black Watch in 1944 was three-quarters composed of young men from Montreal. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and social classes and were almost all English.

The men took pride in being an elite status. The Black Watch had been the Canadian Army’s most decorated unit in WW I. Their commanders were determined to have them gain the same recognition in WW II.

Sniper and scout Hook Wilkinson described his body as containing Black Watch blood not normal blood.

Arriving in Normandy a month after the invasion they deployed near Caen.

O’Keefe provides detailed descriptions of soldiers settling in and starting to apply their training. Few works of military non-fiction provide the particulars of an operation to clear a village of potential snipers. 

The demoralizing effects of artillery are explained in terrible detail. The exploding ground. The randomness of who would live and die as shells fell upon them. The descriptions show why even well trained soldiers could crack because of artillery bombardments.

I cannot recall a more powerful book on what loss is like on the front lines. O’Keefe’s immense and intensive research allows him to personalize the dead and wounded by naming and describing the lives of so many of them. From the initial artillery shell that killed 3 men through their first battle that chewed up a company through the further battles of that crushing week in July the losses are not numbers but men the reader has come to know.

The week culminated on July 25. 2nd Canadian Army Commander General Guy Simonds under some pressure from British Generals Montgomery and Dempsey planned an attack on the Verrières ridge before which the British and Canadian Armies were stalled.

In the attack, the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, was ordered to take the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion. In his autocratic manner Simonds prepared an over complicated plan with precise timing.

 As customary in battle there were disruptions and unexpected issues and the Black Watch was hours behind schedule. As they gathered their Colonel was killed and the 2nd in command badly wounded.

The Black Watch attack was now 4 hours late and the tanks to assist them had not arrived. Ordered by Headquarters to press on Major Phil Griffin did not hesitate. The pride and honour of the Regiment dictated they carry out the attack.

Griffin led his 320 men into a field of wheat in an attack that was to go up and over the ridge. It was a suicide mission. German tanks, artillery, mortars and machine fired on them from 3 sides. With great courage they pressed on with a few men getting over the ridge. Not a soldier reached the objective. 

Of the 320 who advanced into the field 296 were killed, wounded or captured. The next morning 24 shocked survivors gathered. The battle with 94% casualties, is the highest percentage of loss in Canadian history I am aware of in Canadian history.

The impact of the immense loss became so personal with the image of Black Watch padre, Canon Cecil Royle, sitting down at his typewriter to write 300 letters of condolence and packing up the personal belongings of each soldier killed to send to their families:

Vic Foam, the consummate company sergeant major who died leading his company from the front, left his leather wallet, a trusty penknife and his pair of highly polished black oxfords. A stack of letters from home formed part of the collection of Private George Crogie, along with a Waterman pen and pencil and Eveready flashlight - used, no doubt to scrawl letters home after lights out ….. A math textbook and a collection of short stories betrayed John Henry Harper’s desire to better himself, while Private Harry Mahaffy left a set of leather gloves, a toothbrush and his personal identification bracelet (a gift from his family), which matched a personalized cigarette case. 

Accountability for the disaster will be discussed in my next post.