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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Darkness of the Heart by Gail Bowen

(31. – 961.) A Darkness of the Heart by Gail Bowen – The turmoil in Joanne Kilbourn Shreeve’s life from the deaths of three close friends in the The Winners’ Circle is easing when she is thrown into mental chaos by the revelation her revered father, Douglas Ellard, is not her birth father. Her birth father was family friend, Desmond Love. The revelation means her adopted daughter, Taylor, is actually her niece. 

The unknown father, mother, sibling or other relative suddenly revealed to the sleuth in crime fiction is not my favourite plot line. Too often I find it contrived. It does work well in A Darkness of the Heart. I like that Gail makes it a positive rather than shattering event. While startled, even shocked, Joanne is not traumatized.

Joanne, anxious about Taylor’s reaction, breaks the news:

Taylor put her arm around me and snuggled in. The warmth of her young body was comforting. For a few minutes, the only sounds in the room came from the traffic on the street. The air was heavy with the words my daughter and I longed to say to each other, but before we could begin, the doorbell rang. The words would have to remain unsaid. The pizza man was waiting.

As Joanne reflects on Des being her birth father – a man filled with joy – she wonders if the optimism for the future that has guided her life could have been inherited.

While relationships, as always in a Joanne Kilbourn book, are important the world of artistic creativity is at the heart of the book.

New York filmmakers have come to the soundstages of Regina to film a musical The Happiest Girl which was inspired by a painting by Des Love.

For the director, Ainsley Blair, and the screenwriter Ray Brodnitz it is a return to their hometown. They grew up in Regina and trained as dancers with Zephyr Winslow before moving to New York after high school. Just before filming is to start they perform the opening dance in a 75th birthday tribute to Zephyr. They choose “Begin the Beguine” in the style of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell from Broadway Melody of 1940.

Gabe Vickers, the husband of Ainsley, is the aggressive producer of the film. He is justly famed for his ability to put together movies but has a darkness within that leaves Joanne uneasy.

Taylor is reflecting on her personal and artistic future. She has just finished high school and decided to take a gap year. Her immense talent and professional success are unlikely to endear her to the less skilled classmates she would encounter at art school.

For Joanne it is a worrisome time. Taylor’s mother, Sally, at 14 left for New York City with Izaak Levin, an older man, after the death of her father. They soon became lovers. While Sally produced remarkable art her personal life was chaotic and had no time for Taylor as a child. The relationship of Sally and Izaak is more complex than the evident sexual misconduct from the disparity in their ages.

Will the self-destructive natures of her mother, Sally, and her grandmother, Nina, show themselves in Taylor? While Taylor has lived in Joanne’s loving family since she was 4 and shown a maturity beyond her years Taylor is now exploring the world.

Taylor establishes a friendship with Vale Frazier, a talented 17 year old actor, has come from New York to play one of the lead roles. She has been on her own for years.

Joanne has successfully gone through three children leaving home. Yet her parental anxiety over a child become an adult is undiminished with Taylor.

In Gail’s exploration of the minds of artists I was reminded of Louise Penny looking into the psyche of artists in several of the best books of the Armand Gamache series.

Zack and Joanne are also helping their friend, Nick Kovacs, deal with a sexual assault upon his mentally challenged 14 year old daughter, Chloe. While Chloe, who has the mind of a 7 year old, appears alright her father can barely contain his rage over the unknown predator.

There are powerful moments when Joanne sees for the first time on film at 60 years old what she was like as a baby and then a toddler. The psychological impact of watching herself amidst her fathers twists at Joanne. The adult Joanne refers to Douglas as her father and Des as Des.

It is also the most complex time of the year. It is Christmas season. Parties and presents and tension mingle.

The interplay of the relatioships between friends, family and colleagues drew me swiftly through the book.

And then there is sudden unexpected death. In a book that is unflinching in addressing complicated relationships and sexual predelictions I found the solution to the death the weakest part of the book. It was a resolution that avoided consequences.

A Darkness of the Heart is an excellent book. Gail is neither predictable nor formulaic 18 books into a wonderful series. I am glad there are more Joanne Kilbourn mysteries being written.

Bowen, Gail – 2011 Questions and Answers with Gail2011 Suggestions for Gail on losing court cases; The author's website is http://www.gailbowen.com/ - (2011) Deadly Appearances; (2013) Murder at the MendelThe Wandering Soul Murders (Not reviewed); A Colder Kind of Death (Not reviewed); A Killing Spring (Not reviewed); Verdict in Blood (Not reviewed); (2000) - Burying Ariel (Second best fiction of 2000); (2002) - The Glass Coffin; (2004) - The Last Good Day; (2007) – The Endless Knot (Second Best Fiction of 2007); (2008) - The Brutal Heart; (2010) - The Nesting Dolls; (2012) - "B" is for Gail Bowen; (2012) - Kaleidoscope and Q & A on Kaleidoscope; (2013) - The Gifted and Q & A and Comparing with How the Light Gets In; (2015) - 12 Rose StreetQ & A with Gail Bowen on Writing and the Joanne Kilbourn Series; (2016) - What's Left Behind and Heritage Poultry in Saskatchewan Crime Fiction; (2017) - The Winners' Circle; (2018) - Sleuth - Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries / Gail the Grand Master - Part I and Part II; Hardcover

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Q & A with Jayne Barnard

In my last post I reviewed When the Flood Falls by J.E. Barnard. As I wrote the review I sent an email to Jayne with some questions and she promptly replied. My email and her answers are below. I appreciate Jayne answering my questions.

I purchased When the Flood Falls at Chapters in Regina just over a week ago and have enjoyed the book. I will be posting a review tomorrow.

If you have the time I have a few questions.

I have been wondering how close a character Jan is to you. On your website you refer to your ME/CFS and how it has deeply impacted your life. Jan also has ME/CFS. Are her health problems also your experiences?

I’ve had ME/CFS for more than 25 years. It’s a relapsing/remitting neuro-immune illness that, for about 25% of us, never gets around to remitting. I’ve had some of the same struggles as the character Jan, notably resisting getting a wheelchair for several years after I knew I needed one. Others of her experiences are based on those of people I have read through online support groups.

You chose striking women as your major characters are women. The men are the secondary characters. I would be interested in knowing why women lead and men support the plot in your book.

I would also be interested in knowing whether you had reached the decision to make the lead characters women before starting the book or during the writing of the book.

I did appreciate that your strong women were neither all good nor all bad characters.

There was never a question for me about writing the lead characters as women. Conventional wisdom is ‘write what you know’. Well, I know women. My early thirties, like those of my female characters, were filled with struggle: career, relationships, and health issues. Single women are vulnerable to disruptions in all these arenas; we support each other as best we can in a world that is still predominantly governed by men’s rituals and hierarchies.

I wanted to write fiction that – apart from the act of murder which fortunately touches most of us less often than crime fiction would imply – reflected real women’s lives. One part of that reality is that women are at far greater risk of violence and murder from the men in their lives than they are from strangers. The statistics on domestic violence and murder have not significantly changed in the thirty years I have been watching them. That experience of domestic violence is an aspect of Lacey’s PTSD that she will continue to cope with in future books.

I realized as I was reading When the Flood Falls how rarely Canadian crime fiction authors use NHL players in their books. Hockey is our national passion. Money and sex are in abundance around the NHL. What took you to including a group of NHLers in the book? Do you have some personal connections to professional hockey?

I have a spiderweb of interactions with the world of hockey, beginning many years ago when my co-worker married a minor-league scout and started billeting young players. Some of those young players struggled with homesickness and some were caught up directly or peripherally in abusive situations that only came to light years later. Some of them abused the teenage girls who treated them like royalty. As I was studying adolescent psychology at that time, my co-worker and I had many discussions about the factors shaping those young players, how she could mitigate possible damage to them, and the ways in which those influences might play out in their adulthood.

Throughout the decades, I’ve followed the careers of some of those players – yes, into the NHL as well as to international teams – watching some of them grow into great players, strong and compassionate humans, while others flamed out early in self-destructive spirals. The novel is not primarily about hockey players or the people around them, but I hope I have stated some of the sacrifices that the players and their families must make, and the price they pay, in their quest for a professional hockey career.

Thank you for considering my questions. If you are willing I will post your answers with the questions in a followup post to the review.

I am looking forward to your next mystery.

With both of our sons residing in Calgary Sharon and I are in Calgary fairly often. Perhaps we can get together on one of our visits.


Bill Selnes
Jayne’s website is www.jaynebarnard.ca. She also provided biographical information:

JE (Jayne) Barnard is a Calgary-based crime writer with 25 years of award-winning short fiction and children’s literature behind her. Author of the popular Maddie Hatter Adventures (Tyche Books), and now The Falls Mysteries (Dundurn Press), she’s won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur, the Bony Pete, and the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award. Her works were shortlisted for the Prix Aurora (twice), the UK Debut Dagger, the Book Publishing in Alberta Award (twice), and three Great Canadian Story prizes. Jayne is a past VP of Crime Writers of Canada, a founder of Calgary Crime Writers, and a member of Sisters In Crime. She is represented by Olga Filina of The Rights Agency.

Her most recent book is When the Flood Falls, a small-town psychological thriller set in the Alberta foothills west of Calgary.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

When the Flood Falls by J.E. Barnard

(30. – 960.) When the Flood Falls by J.E. Barnard – Money, mountain vistas, hockey, art and sex are a potent mystery mix. Jayne has written an impressive first novel.

Strong women dominate When the Flood Falls. A quartet of women are at the heart of her book. Dee and Lacey are wounded souls who have just come out of bad marriages. Jan struggles through every day because of myalgic encephalomyelitis (chronic pain fatigue syndrome). Camille is the blonde trophy wife of a retired hockey player.

Lacey McCrae left a marriage that became abusive and quit the RCMP where she was a corporal. More accurately she has fled. Arriving in Alberta with modest work skills and less money she starts to rebuild her life. She re-enters the non-police work force finding employment with another former RCMP officer on the construction of a new Arts Centre and History Museum at Bragg Creek.

Bragg Creek is a real community west of Calgary at the beginning of the foothills to the Rockies. It is in a beautiful area. I find books where I am personally familiar with the setting have a special interest. Having spent some time in Bragg Creek I found her description reflected the community and its geography.

Lacey is invited by her former university roommate, Dee (Deandra Sharon Phillips), to stay at Dee’s massive country home just out of Bragg Creek. While looking to re-connect Dee’s primary motivation is having a former police officer in her home at night. She believes someone is prowling around her home. Dee is also experiencing the drama and trauma of the breakup of her marriage.

The opening exhibition for the new museum - A Century of Western Canadian Hockey - is brilliantly conceived. Hockey is, by far, the dominant sport in Canada. The culture in and around the game can be appreciated by every Canadian.

NHL players are venerated in Canada. Not all deserve such status. Some are self-absorbed young men uncaring in their behavior. Several players are spending part of the summer at Bragg Creek.

One of them, Jarrad Fiske, a few months earlier, recklessy driving near Dee’s home forced her to leap into a ditch and struck and killed her dog. She suffered a broken ankle.

Jan Brenner spends her days watching the neighbourhood from her hillside home. Desperate for something to let her function, rather than merely exist, she is experimenting with dosages of Adderall.

Jayne can skewer the self-inflated. Few books involve the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes. Here, led by former librarian Camille Hardy, are a quintet of blonde and beautiful young women focused on personal beauty and personal satisfaction.

Camille is a trophy wife to regret as she flaunts an affair with a young hockey player. She is also working on being an entitled exasperating volunteer Arts Centre Board director.

I appreciated Jayne challenging cultural assumptions. A lone protester, Eddie Beal, has daily protested the building of the Centre. He argues the land for the Centre and the money spent building the Centre could have been better used to build a chicken processing plant. It would be easy to be dismissive. However, he explains his position:

“Me and Eben wanted a chicken processing plant. Lots of small farmers hereabouts raise their own birds. Need someplace to get them plucked, gutted, and frozen. Right now they’re hauling halfway to Rocky Mountain House.”

Overall, When the Flood Falls has a depth to the story and characters not present enough in crime fiction.

I do have a couple of issues. In a plot driven by intelligent logical investigation the delay in recognizing where the body was located did not make sense to me. As well Dee, Lacey and Jan all have major mental health issues. I wished they were not so severely damaged. Their problems create dramatic opportunities but their fears are so great they challenge credibility at times.

Jayne is a Facebook friend who deals with major health challenges. The route to publication started with When the Flood Falls winning the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime fiction in 2016. Still the remainder of the publication journey was difficult. I am glad Jayne was able to get published. She has written a fine book.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

An American Pope Francesco

In my previous post I started a review of The Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy. The book covers the life of Declan Walsh from American war hero through Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court to Pope. It is impossible but in Murphy transcends the impossible.

After the death of his wife Walsh has resigned as Chief Justice and joined a Trappist monastery as a simple monk.

In Rome the College of Cardinals is at an impasse between the traditionalist cardinals and the servant cardinals over the election of a new pope. Repeated votes have revealed no path to a pope.

Ugo Cardinal Galeotti, a former papal diplomat in America, decides to propose Walsh as a means of breaking the stalemate. It is possible to elect a non-cardinal, even a layman, as pope.

He provides a stirring oration in support of Walsh:

Walsh has been touched by the finger of God. He was a hero, not merely a participant, but a wounded hero in two wars, one against fascism, one against communism. He was born here among us, and returned to us as a mature man, the representative of his government. Since that time he has been selected for the most prestigious judicial office in the secular world. He relinquished that office in the midst of a distinguished career. He relinquished it not for material advancement but to enter a monastery in the service of God, not even as a priest but as a simple brother. We do not look on these events as fortuitous accidents, random events for which reasons are lacking. We see the finger of God illuminating for us the shape of a man to lead us.”

Elected pope Walsh choses the name of Francesco (Francis). Many have note the parallels between the fictional Francesco and the current Pope Francis.

What makes the remainder of the book fascinating for me is how Murphy weaves into the story the complex issues faced by Francesco.

Faced with a war in the Middle East in which Egypt is bombarding Tel Aviv with missiles he offers himself as a mediator. When the offer is rejected Francesco, over the objections of all, flies to Tel Aviv to stay with an old friend. With a role in the world limited to moral authority he will use the power of his presence. Egypt halts its missiles.

Francesco repeats several times he is not afraid to be a martyr for God's truth. It is not often in the 21st Century that we hear Christian leaders talk of martyrdom.

Within the Church Francesco wrestles with the bureaucracy of a worldwide church of hundreds of millions of people.

He sets out to establish a great crusade to inspire the Church.

His goals for the Church are challenged by the distraction of a series of people in different parts of the world claiming they have been miraculously cured by touching him. Are they are real miracles or hysterical cures?

Despite discounting the miracles Francesco continues to allow the sick and crippled to touch him. Is he shifting from a practical religious leader to a mystic who has come to believe that he has been touchded by the finger of God? He expresses "utter confidence in his own judgment".

The traditionalists are angry. They see a pope entering into heresy. In a clever use of language by Murphy a leaker of Vatican information is titled "Holy Throat".

While the election of Francesco can never be plausible his life and death as Pope are completely believable. The opening sentence states Francesco is dead.

Forty years after publication The Vicar of Christ remains a remarkable book.
Murphy, Walter F. – (2001) and (2018) - The Vicar of Christ

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy

(29. – 959.) The Vicar of Christ by Walter F. Murphy – I read this sprawling saga of the life of Declan Walsh a couple of decades ago. I enjoyed it at that time. I enjoyed the re-read more. Having reached my mid-60’s I appreciated the depths of the book better the second time.

Declan Walsh is as memorable character as I have encountered in fiction. Many a blurb has described a character as larger than life. None exceed Walsh. As a young man he is a war hero. In middle age he is the Chief Justice of the United States. As a senior he is chosen pope. It is an impossible life but Murphy makes it real.

What I understood better the second reading was the fullness of Murphy’s portrait of Walsh. In each of Walsh’s incarnations Murphy probes deeply into Walsh’s personality, how he deals with people and how he intersects with history.

The narrative is unusual in that it is told from the perspectives of men who served under Walsh. He was their leader not their peer.

In the Marines it is Master Gunnery Sergeant Giuseppe Michelangelo Guicciardini Jr.

Gunny is a profane lifer in the Marine Corps. Having served through multiple wars he is a keen observer of officers. He knows their leadership in combat is critical for the lives of the men under their command. Gunny neither fears death nor is courting death by seeking glory.

Colonel Walsh commands an infantry battalion in Korea confronting a Chinese army seeking territorial gains before peace negotiations take place.

In the midst of battle Walsh makes the hard decisions needed. He strives to minimize the losses but recognizes there will be many killed and wounded as they defend a hill against Chinese attacks.

The story enters into heroic myth when, because of Walsh’s skillful leadership, the survivors of his battered battalion slip through the Chinese army to reach American lines

When Walsh makes radio contact with his division he utters Hollywood worthy lines:

We have buried our dead and are carrying our wounded.

Gunny says:

But it was all about leadership – the way he planned and thought, and cared, or seemed to care, anyway, and taught and drove. He was good people, a little rough sometimes, maybe a little too sudden, but good people. Christ, he had smarts. If he was on the other side in a war, I’d hang up my jock or blow my brains out. And he was as stubborn a mammy-jammer as ever put on a tin hat.

On the Supreme Court it is associate justice C. Bradley Walker III who describes the time Walsh spent as Chief Justice of the United States. In his opening remarks he states:

You wanted to talk about Walsh – a fascinating creature, absolutely fascinating, my dear fellow. He had a great deal of atmosphere about him, but his was not truly a first-rate presence – close to it, but he missed, just missed. Great native intelligence, to be sure, and a dead keen wit. A man of fantastic drive, absolutely fantastic – and not devoid of vision, either. But for reasons I shall try to develop, there was a dimension missing, a lack of true understanding of the limited mission of our Court.

Walker is a pretentious American patrician who is a wily observer, sometime manipulator, of the Court.

Murphy creates a full complement of Supreme Court justices. Beyond Walsh and Walker there are seven credible characters as justices.

The fictional cases for the Court created by Murphy delve into the continuing issues of America. 

An early case involves unsuccessful white student applicants to Boalt Hall, the law school at Berkeley in Calfornia.

The oral argument covers the range of probing questions now common in appeals being argued before the American Supreme Court. Few lawyers are able to do better than hold their own against the queries of the justices.

What struck me is that Murphy is willing to have the argument go on for multiple pages. As in real life arguments before courts the process is not over in a couple of sound bites.

Subsequently the debate within the Court at conferences of the judges to discuss how the appeal will be decided is also given a generous exploration.

In this case Murphy recognizes that the Court must deal with competing injustices. There is “social injustice” that has disadvantaged minorities. There is “specific injustice in that California has not used the same criteria to choose among candidates for admission to law school”. In many difficult cases whatever the decision it will be unjust to one or more of the parties involved in the court case.

Murphy invites readers to think about the great issues that come before the American Supreme Court. He sets forth challenging cases. Murphy shows the reader that simplistic slogans cannot resolve the important cases of America.

As the leader of the Court Walsh seeks to build consensus but is never afraid to dissent.

I often find mysteries over long but true sagas need pages to provide their sweep to a grand story. The 600 pages of The Vicar of Christ barely encompass Walsh's life.

My next post will discuss the most striking transformation in the book as Walsh becomes the first American pope.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Paul Goldstein in Reverse

I like to read series in order. I can learn the primary characters and follow their development professionally and personally. Occasionally I will read a book later in a series. Usually it is because of a reading challenge or because it is involved in an Award where I read the shortlist. Only once have I read a series in reverse order. It is Paul Goldstein’s series of legal mysteries featuring intellectual property lawyer, Michael Seeley. I started reading the series with the third, Havana Requiembecause it won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and went on to the second, A Patent Lie. My last two posts have formed a review of the first book in the series, Errors and Omissions.

(This post does not include spoilers that disclose the resolution of the three mysteries but it does provide details from all of the books. Someone reading them in order would be best advised not to read the post until they have concluded the series.)

I want to discuss the impact of reading the Michael Seeley series in reverse order.

Few lawyers in real life return to firms they have asked to leave because of their problems. It was with some surprise as I read Havana Requiem to learn that Seeley had come back to the large New York City firm – Boone, Bancroft – that had sent him away for alcohol abuse.

It would have been shocking to learn of his return if I had read Errors and Omissions before Havana Requiem. In the opening of Errors and Omissions Seeley is out of control. He drinks two tumblers of gin before going to court for a settlement conference.

While he does his best to stop drinking for the balance of the book he is not receiving professional assistance and is trying to quit on his own. His efforts are not enough to convince the firm to keep him. How can they trust him not to return to the bottle?

As well Seeley was disillusioned with the stress and financial demands of big firm practice. It was not a surprise in A Patent Lie the he had returned to his roots in Buffalo to be a solo practictioner working on the modest needs of individual clients.

He is drawn back to major litigation in A Patent Lie when he is asked to be lead trial counsel on a huge AIDS patent case in California.

I can understand his old firm’s interest in him after his success in California but many firms would not take the risk of his return. I admire the fictional firm for giving him another chance.

In Havana Requiem Seeley is caught up in a quest to regain the music rights for black Cuban composers lost since Castro took over Cuba in 1957.

While large firms will take on pro bono cases they are not known for idealism. Seeley sees a cause not merely a case.

I would have better understood the depths of his commitment to artists had I started with Errors and Omissions where he was anxious to take a case to trial on the moral rights of artists to control their works after sale. His eagerness to set a precedent prevented him from advising a client to accept a reasonable settlement.

In Errors and Omissions he is willing to turn away from a million dollar fee to help an author of movie screenplays blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950’s.

A Patent Lie involves commercial law. While Seeley remains an idealist the plot does not relate to artists.

Real life lawyers are rarely in physical danger in their work. In the fictional intellectual property worlds created by Goldstein lawyers are at risk in every book.

I did not expect the violence Seeley experienced in in Havana Requiem. I would have been ready had I read the series in order.

In A Patent Lie Seeley is called out to California because the lead plaintiff lawyer in the patent action has died but two weeks before trial. Hit by a train his death has been ruled a suicide. The suspicions of mystery readers are immediately engaged.

In Errors and Omissions Seely has a pair of fights. They go poorly for him. While he is tenacious he is not a fighter. It would have been better for Seeley to have his creator provided him with a black belt in judo if his legal career was going to be so dangerous.

Havana Requiem emphasized the international nature of intellectual property law. The music written by Cuban musicians before the Revolution was being used 50 laters in American ads. The rights of the composers also involved the Cuban government of today.

In AIDS A Patent Lie vaccines have worldwide issues on availability and cost.

Errors and Ommissions set up the international issues of intellectual law expanded upon in the later books. In Errors and Omissions the opening court case was over the moral rights of artists with regard to their works after sale. In searching for precedents Seeley looked at how the issue had been dealt with in Europe.

While an interesting experience I am not planning a repeat of the reverse order reading of a series. In real life court cases I strive to organize the narrative chronologically rather than thematically. It is the way I best follow evidence. Reading the Seeley series in reverse reinforced my preference for reading a series in order. A topic for another day are authors who write a book or books in a series that are set earlier than the current state of the series.
Goldstein, Paul - (2013) - Havana Requiem and Goldstein's reaction on winning the Harper Lee Prize; (2014) - A Patent Lie and Patents and Vaccines and Ethics; (2018) - Errors and Omissions and Review of Errors and Omissions

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review of Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein – Michael Seeley, as outlined in my previous post, is facing the prospect in New York of charges of “moral turpitude” for appearing at a court settlement conference while impaired by alcohol. 

His firm gives him a last chance. Well known for his knowledge of intellectual property rights, he is one of the few lawyers in America that major movie studios rely on to provide letters of opinions to lenders that the legal framework for a movie is in order. 

The firm sends him to Hollywood to provide an opinion letter for United Pictures with regard to the latest movie in their very profitable Spykiller series of films.

What could be a straightforward review and opinion is complicated by the author of the screenplay, Bert Cobb, refusing to sign a transfer of his rights to the studio. The transfer will allow the studio to make the movie.

In decades past studios had gained transfers informally by such means as putting on a check to the screenwriter that if the cheque was cashed the rights were transferred. With Cobb the studio had been unable to find any paper that could be construed a transfer.

The transfer is needed because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision “ruling that to call a freelancer an employee was not enough to make him one”. 

Cobb, well into his senior years, is still working outside Los Angeles as a photographer. Despite modest means he turns down significant offers from the studio.

Studio executives press Seeley to find a way to write the opinion without Cobb’s signature. He refuses. He may be an alcoholic and his personal life a mess but he retains his professional integrity.

Seeley’s exploration into the writing of the original Spykiller movie stretches back 50 years.

Seeley, after meeting Cobb, doubts Cobb wrote the screenplay. He wonders if Cobb is a front. The screenplay was written during the 1950’s when the Hollywood blacklist was preventing many screenwriters from getting contracts. To make a living numerous writers had someone, not even a writer on occasion, be their front and sign that they had written the script instead of the actual writer.

Yet no blacklisted writer has ever claimed he or she wrote the screenplay.

Pressure is building on all involved to reach a resolution. A camera crew is ready to commence filming.

Yet it is not a world of black and white between the studios and the Artists Rights Alliance. Relationships between studio heads and the leadership of the Alliance are as complicated as all Hollywood relationships.

It was fascinating to read about how important a single page document, the transfer of rights, can be within a multi-billion dollar industry.

When negotiations falter violence ensues. I thought the violence unnecessary. Perhaps only lawyers see an abundance of tension in the issues of authorship and blacklisted writers. Much as I love reading about legal conflicts I expect this book would not have been published without some violence.

I admire Goldstein’s ability to make intellectual law gripping mystery fiction. My next post will look at reading the series of Michael Seeley books in reverse order.

(I said in my last post I would discuss what happens to Seeley’s battle with alcohol abuse. On travelling to Los Angeles he stops drinking. While he has yet to truly admit alcohol controls him he is trying to address his alcohol abuse. I know of few people as deep into alcohol as Seeley who were able to stop drinking on their own but I was glad to read of his intention to be sober.)
Goldstein, Paul - (2013) - Havana Requiem and Goldstein's reaction on winning the Harper Lee Prize; (2014) - A Patent Lie and Patents and Vaccines and Ethics; (2018) - Errors and Omissions

Friday, August 24, 2018

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein – I found the opening chapters sad and hard. Reading about a lawyer in trouble is never easy for me. I want the lawyers of fiction to be honourable men and women diligently doing their best for clients. I know the blemished may draw more interest but I find it painful to read of them.

Michael Seeley is an intellectual property lawyer, one of the best in America. His skill with intellectual property cases induced a major New York City law firm to lure him from Buffalo and provide him with a partnership.

Unfortunately, he has burned out under the grind of continuing success. Winning case after case left him in ever greater demand. He has worn out and turned to alcohol. The occasional drink to relax has descended to addiction.

Before going to a case management conference he has a couple of tumblers of gin to ease his massive hangover. I was cringing as he went to court impaired.

Within the conference he is defiant urging his artist client not to accept $50,000 to his sculpture “a dozen or so rusted structural girders exploding through a brick wall in the lobby of a Park Avenue office building” to be painted. Seeley wants to win the case that will give artists moral rights over how their work is treated by purchasers. Principle is wonderful but a settlement was in the best interests, especially financial, of the client.

His impairment is obvious and the judge calls him out and says he will be pursuing a complaint against Seeley for “moral turpitude”.

A frustrated Seeley gets momentary satisfaction from calling the judge “a pompous toad”. The self-indulgent sarcasm will rebound against him.

The out of control alcoholic Seeley reminded me of a pair of real life cases in Western Canada.

A few years ago I was in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called for argument when I watched a lawyer facing a civil contempt charge. He had been caught by a judge during a hearing drinking vodka from his water glass. He was bound to be severely punished by the court. He had breached his responsibilities as an officer of the court.

More recently I read of a Saskatchewan lawyer defending a client in Queen’s Bench of criminal charges. As court began one morning the Crown Prosecutor thought he smelled alcohol on the breath of the defence counsel. When the defence counsel was almost half an hour late returning to court after lunch the prosecutor thought the smell stronger. He spoke to the defence counsel who said he had been drinking late into the previous night and definitely would still have alcohol in his system.

The defence counsel apologized to the court and, while he was sure he had alcohol in his system he was capable of proceeding with the trial. He was tested on an alcohol screening device and his reading was over .08.

With that test and the accused firing the defence counsel a mistrial was ordered and the matter referred to the Law Society. The lawyer voluntarily undertook not to practice law and sought treatment.

After 5 years of sobriety a hearing was conducted in which he pled guilty conduct unbecoming a lawyer. He was given the opportunity to re-apply for re-instatement as an active member of the Law Society on conditions.

The fictional Seeley is headed for comparable dire consequences.

I appreciate Goldstein is using the alcoholic lawyer to demonstrate the risks and consequences of addiction for lawyers. Yet I cannot help but feel bad for Seeley. He is a good lawyer and a decent person who, as is the case with almost every real life lawyer in similar circumstances, has fallen prey to alcohol abuse..

In real life in Saskatchewan Seeley could have picked up the phone and called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers for help in addressing his problems. It is a confidential program funded by the Law Society but administered independently that is available free of charge for all Saskatchewan lawyers and their families.

Seeley is an all too real fictional lawyer. As I read the book I hope he will deal with his alcohol abuse before he is disbarred. I was drawn to writing this post before finishing the book. Spoiler or not my next post will advise what happens in Seeley’s struggles with alcohol.