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.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

America on Trial by Alan Dershowitz Continued

(22. – 909.) America on Trial by Alan Dershowitz – This post continues my review of America on Trial; a compilation of famous American trials by Dershowitz, the well known Harvard Law Professor and litigator.

There are numerous constitutional decisions for important cases must often interpret the American Constitution. Originalists, currently in favour by American conservatives, would limit interpretation of the Constitution. An example of that position in a judgment is:

…. but while it (the Constitution) remains unaltered, it must be construed now, as it was understood at the time of its adoption. It not only the same in words, but the same in meaning, and delgates the same powers to the Government, and reserves and secures the same rights and privileges to the citizen; and as long as it continues to exist in its present form, it speaks not only in the same words, but with the same meaning and intent with which it spoke when it came from the hands of its framers, and was voted on and adopted by the people of the United States. Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex for the popular opinion or passion of the day. This court was not created by the Constitution for such purposes. Higher and graver trusts have been confided to it, and it must not falter in the path of duty.

Variations on such language are pronounced daily by American conservatives of the 21st Century. The paragraph quoted comes from the Dred Scott decision of 1856 in which the American Supreme Court ruled that freed American slaves were disqualified from being American citizens.

A century later the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education did not limit itself to an “originalist” interpretation when it struck down segregation in schools, the separate but supposedly equal public education in place in many states. Dershowitz discusses the decision:

The opinion itself was elegant in its simplicity. Warren posed the essential question: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race … deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?”

The answer was “we believe that it does”: “To separate [grade school children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Dershowitz shows the importance of a good lawyer . In the Leopold and Loeb case a pair of Chicago teenagers murdered a boy to show they could kill and get away with murder. They were saved from the death penalty by the brilliance of Clarence Darrow’s closing argument. On executing children he said:

I am not pleading so much for these boys as I am for the infinite number of others to follow, those who perhaps cannot be as well defended as these have been, those who may go down in the storm, and the tempest, without aid. It is of them I am thinking, and for them I am begging of this court not to turn backward to the barbarous and cruel past.

In other cases, especially appeals to the United States Supreme Court, Dershowitz says the lawyers play little part in the decision. Having been a Supreme Court clerk and been involved in Supreme Court cases for decades he states:

Perhaps the most persisten mythology surrounding great cases, especially great Supreme Court cases, is that the lawyers – especially the lawyers for the winning side – played pivotal roles in the victory. That myth is certainly prevalent with regard to the lawyers who argued Roe v. Wade, the case that first established a woman’s constitutional right to choose abortion.

I believe he under states the significance of appellate lawyers such as himself, especially at the first level of appeal from a trial decision. A good appellate lawyer can be the difference in successfully challenging or defending a trial decision. Dershowitz provides a personal example in the Claus von Bulow case. Were it not for his fine work on the appeal I doubt von Bulow would ever had a second trial where he was found not guilty.

His discussion of the von Bulow case also displays Dershowitz’s forthrightness in addressing the merits of a decision. Von Bulow was charged with attempting to murder his wife, Sunny, by injecting her with insulin. Dershowitz asserts von Bulow was not merely not guilty but actually innocent of the charges:

But I sincerely believe that there was no compelling evidence of any crime. Accordingly, we can claim little credit for the jury’s correct verdict at the second trial. Innocent defendants should be acquitted, with or without good lawyers, though it does not always work out that way. But having an innocent client helps a great deal, just as it helps a doctor to have a curable patient.

A notable exception to his practice of strong personal opinions on the correctness of decisions is the O.J. Simpson case where he is unusually circumscript over O.J. being found not guilty. Dershowitz was primarily involved in the case as the lawyer who would frame the grounds of appeal if O.J. were convicted. O.J. called Dershowitz his “God Forbid” lawyer needed only if found guilty. With regard to the facts there is no expression of belief in O.J.’s innocence by Dershowitz to rival the ringing comments of his von Bulow statements. It is striking how muted his remarks are with regard to O.J.

America on Trial provides vivid snapshots of the American legal system. It is an excellent book. Currently, the author, now over 50 years into his legal career, continues to advocate for the unpopular and vilified. Most recently, he has argued that President Trump could not be guilty of obstruction of justice with regard to firing FBI director, James Comey. Dershowitz stated on CNN:

         "You cannot have obstruction of justice when the president
         exercises his constitutional authority to pardon, his 
         constitutional authority to fire the director of the FBI, or his 
         constitutional authority to tell the director of the FBI who to 
         prosecute, who not to prosecute," .....

We shall see if Dershowitz becomes President Trump’s “God Forbid” lawyer.
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Dershowitz, Alan - (2017) - America on Trial - Part I


Thursday, June 22, 2017

America on Trial by Alan Dershowitz

(22. – 909.) America on Trial by Alan Dershowitz – One of America’s best lawyers and best lawyer writers Dershowitz set out in the early 2000’s to write about important trials in American history. The subtitle is “Inside the Legal Battles that Transformed Our Nation”. The cases reviewed begin in colonial times before the Revolution and continue through to the first trials involving terrorism after 9/11. This post and my next post shall form my review of the book.

Dershowitz is exceptionally skilled at narrating the facts, setting out the issues and discussing the legal principles of court cases. Never compromising analysis he makes the law understandable for all readers. It is no surprise he has been very successful as an appellate lawyer where well written arguments are the critical to winning the appeal.

The book is not a list of America’s 100 most important cases. While many of the cases will be familiar to readers others are almost obscure. Dershowitz had an idiosyncratic criterion for determining the cases “that transformed our nation”:

For me the basic criteria is passion. Did the trial reflect the passions of the time? Did it engage the passions of the people? Will contemporary readers still feel passionately about the issues, the personalties, and the verdict?

Dershowitz, personally involved with some of the great cases of the last half of the 20th Century, does not shy away from discussing some of his cases. At the same time the book is not a compilation of his cases in which he has been a lawyer.

Among the well known cases in the book are the Salem Witchcraft trials, the Dred Scott case, the trial of Lizzie Borden, the Scopes trial, the Alger Hiss case, the Court-Martial of Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. and the Clinton Impeachment trial.

Others are little known today though the issues remain relevant. I was struck by the Savannah trial in the midst of the American Civil War. The defendants were sailors on a Confederate raider, operating under “under letters of marque and reprisal, which authorized private ships to hunt down and attach Union shipping vessels”. After the Savannah was captured they were tried for piracy as President Lincoln stated that the Confederate government was illegitimate and had no authority to issue the letters marque and reprisal. A hung jury saved Lincoln from having to decide whether to execute the crew. Putting pressure upon him was the Confederate government’s announcement it would kill as many high ranking Northern prisoners of war as sailors executed for piracy.

In recent years American courts have wrestled with the contention of the American government that, though engaged in the war on terrorism, that members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda captured in battle in Afghanistan are not prisoners of war.

Dershowitz is not a dispassionate chronicler of the cases. He has firm opinions about the fairness of the trials and the correctness of the decisions.

When I talk to clients about going to court I avoid the use of the word fair. While Dershowitz is comfortable in stating whether he considers a trial to have been fairly conducted or a judge to be a fair jurist I dislike the word “fair” in the context of court. To me fair is too emotionally charged a word. It is hard to have an objective determination of what or who is fair. Court cases are not decided on fairness. Judges make decisions based on statute, common law precedent and the rules of evidence. Unless the facts and law are in your favour I counsel clients against going to court because they believe they will win because their position is “fair”.

Now juries in criminal cases are not bound in making decisions as judges are bound by the law. Jurors are the sole triers of fact and, in rare circumstances, can make a decision that is contrary to the law. Judges instruct jurors to follow the law as described by trial judges in their charges to juries but they cannot stop juries from deciding contrary to the law. Jury nullification cannot be advocated by lawyers but it has happened and will continue to happen. 

An example of jury nullification took place in 1735 John Peter Zenger was charged with seditious libel for publishing “a somewhat amateurish politicial magazine comprising an assortment of essays, lampoons, and other provocative items directed primarily against the governor of New York.” Though Zenger had no legal defence under the statute, even truth was not a defence, a jury found him not guilty.

(My next post will continue my review and discuss a potential new client for Dershowitz.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Michael Helm Discusses After James as Crime Fiction

In my last post I put up an email letter to author Michael Helm on whether he considered his book, After James, to be crime fiction. I appreciate he promptly responded. Below is his email and another email I sent to him. He advised in a further email I could post his first email.
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Dear Bill,

Thanks for getting in touch. It's always good to hear from readers -- I really do appreciate anyone who spends time with one of my books -- and to hear from anyone I'm guessing might be a Rider fan.

I can only say that I was surprised and delighted to be recognized by the Arthur Ellis Awards. Awards nominations bring more readers. It's true that After James, though it employs some of the devices of popular genre fiction, and considers popular fiction as a sort of theme, doesn't conform to the traditional mystery-resolution pattern of most crime fiction (there might be a sort of solution to the mysteries, but maybe it's provisional, and doesn't appear where we expect it to). Maybe the novel's intentions, what it hopes to offer readers, aren't those of traditional crime novels. But of course it's also true that some crime novels share the human aesthetic concerns of literary fiction, and that literary novels often fit genre categories of play against them consciously.

One benefit of awards lists is that they get people talking seriously about books. I'm happy the Arthur Ellis list has begun another conversation.

Good luck with your reading, Bill.

Yours,
Michael
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To: Michael

Thank you for your prompt reply.

As you did not mention not posting your reply it is my intention to post it tomorrow night. If you would like it kept private I would request an email tomorrow before the evening.

You are correct that I am a fan of the Riders. My interest in writing and sports led me to start writing a sports column. This year is my 40th season covering the Riders. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy writing about sports. In 2013 I was inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. I am the first reporter to be inducted who writes for a weekly newspaper.

In case you are interested I include a copy of this week’s column on the late Don Matthews as a part of this email.

All the best.

Bill
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Saturday, June 17, 2017

What Makes a Book Crime Fiction?

My previous two posts have discussed the complex plot of Another James. This post in the form of a letter to the author, Michael Helm, contains my thoughts upon the book.
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Melfort, Saskatchewan

Dear Michael,

As part of my annual reading and reviewing I have been reading the shortlist for the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel. The second book I read from the shortlist was your book, After James.

The last two posts on my blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, deal with the plot of the book. My third post will be this letter. If you are able to reply and agree to the posting of your reply I will put it up on the blog.

I consider After James a finely written work of literary fiction. My challenge in reading the book was that I was expecting to read a work of criminal fiction since it was on the shortlist.

My expectations interfered with my reading of the book. I kept expecting it to be crime fiction I recognized and my expectations were never realized. Whether expectations should have affected my reading is a reflection for a future post.

I see After James as exploring the mystery of “mystical consciousness” - a phrase in the book I found apt. The first part of the book explored in depth a drug induced state of such consciousness. Much of the second part was focused on mystical consciousness in poetry. The third part delved into the past for an apocalyptic vision of the future.

Unfortunately, I was looking for a crime or crimes and their resolution rather than a philosophical and literary exploration of the mysteries of mind and consciousness. Literary fiction with mystery elements does not fit my conception of crime fiction.

The Crime Writers of Canada set out the following with regard to criteria for the Arthur Ellis Awards:

The Arthur Ellis Awards are for CRIME WRITING, and are not restricted to mystery writing. Crime-writing encompasses far more than the traditional whodunit. The crime genre includes crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works.

It is hard for me to see why After James was submitted for the Crime Fiction Novel Award. I am not saying crime fiction should be circumscribed by rules such those put forward by Monsignor Knox in the 1930’s. I am in favour of the definition of crime fiction being flexible but I find it a stretch to see Another James as crime fiction.

Beyond the exploration of mystical consciousness there are factual mysteries being “investigated” in each section of After James but they are the settings for penetrating the human mind. Am I being too literal in expecting the plot of a book being considered for Best Crime Novel to have a crime or crimes at the heart of the book?

If having a series of unsolved mysteries was to reflect the ambiguity in real life of resolving crime it was too obscure a theme for me. I waited in vain to see a recognizable plot of crime fiction in After James. Looking back on the shortlists I have read in recent years I never had difficulty in seeing them as crime fiction.

In the introduction to an interview with you on CBC radio the host, Shelagh Rogers, echoed several reviewers in saying the book has elements of the mystery, gothic horror and apocolpytic genres.

You told her that you sort of like reading detective novels. You continued that you love reading the first half of detective novels but usually get bored at that point.

I want to ask you directly whether you consider After James a work of crime fiction. If you do I would appreciate your thoughts on what makes the book crime fiction.

For most purposes I do not think designating a book as being a part of a genre significant but when Awards are being given I think it is important that the book be a part of the genre for which the Award is being given.

Before closing I did not realize, until doing some research on your life, that we share growing up in rural Saskatchewan and holding a degree from the University of Saskatchewan.

Thank you for considering my letter.

Regards.

Bill Selnes
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As I put up this post I do not have a reply from Michael. Should he reply and agree to the response being posted I will put it up in a later post.
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Helm, Michael - (2017) - Another James and Continuing on Another James

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

After James by Michael Helm Continued

In this post I continue my review of After James by Michael Helm. In the second portion of the book the story revolves around James. As set out at the end of my last post he has come to Rome to analyze poems for August Durant who is convinced that the author of a poetry website, Three Sheets, has knowledge of his disappeared daughter.

Durant's conviction is based on a line in a poem:

       The sun winks and we play blind.

Durant had said those words to his daughter in their last conversation before she went missing.

Part of Durant's own analysis has been technical:

       You might know that in poetry the term "chiasmus" refers to
       a reflecting rhetorical device, as if a mirror has been set down 
       in the middle of a line or stanza. The primary early source is 
       Scripture:
             A                  B                B              A
        the first shall be last and the last shall be first

       The ABBA structure can be made more complex, as in 
       ABCDDCBA, or disguised through separation so that each 
       letter is on a different line or so the ABCD is in one line, and 
       DCBA in another.

As he reads and thinks about the poetry James meets the lovely Amanda who has been his predecessor in studying the poems for August. She has also suffered personal loss with her brother recently killed in Guatemala. 

Each of August and James and Amanda is searching for the truth with regard to the loss of a family.

The poems have a cryptic quality providing many options for meaning.

It becomes clear that the parents of James have been murdered rather than dying in a car accident.

He travels to Turkey to seek out an explanation.

This section of the book has lots of mystery, especially mysterious strangers. It has elements of crime fiction. He ends his Turkish quest caught up in riot.

There is but a slight connection with the first section of the book.

Three hundred pages into the book the reader encounters Celia, her father and Armin Koss.

Father is an archeologist who has spent his career conducting excavations studying extinction. Celia is a virologist for a Vancouver company. Koss is a mysterious character who made money developing video games.

Father has an apocalyptic vision of the future:

        "It's time for some other organism to take over the world."      
        Her father outlined the so-called no-analog future currently 
        rounding the corner upon carbon emissions and acidification. 
       "Nothing like this has ever existed before. There's nothing to 
       compare it to. We've made something new and deadly and    
       can't stop repeating the mistake."

In the Cevennes area of France Celia and her father have a mystical experience in a cave that profoundly affects her father. There is a non-drug induced mind altering experience.

Father's conversion from "a man of science to a man of God" is accelerated.

Subsequently, Celia travels to an excavation site in Turkey. She is participating in what:

       Her father declared his last project to be finding a variant 
       genome of the Justinian plague, sixth century, thirty to fifty 
       million dead. New contagions were more accurately targeted if 
       they were known descendants of old ones.

Celia seeks samples of bacteria from long dead bodies that can be analyzed and studied to help counter modern plagues. A 2,500 year old tooth will provide the bacteria. I found the description of the extraction touching and poetic:

        He kneeled beside her and put his hands on the skull of the 
        adult female. He'd been working hard and smelled of sweet. 
        With slow delicacy he turned the face toward them and 
        removed the skull from the body.

She privately names the skull Alice.

The world still exists as the book ends and there has been no factual drawing together of the three sections of the book.

(My third post on After James will be my analysis.)

Monday, June 12, 2017

After James by Michael Helm

After James by Michael Helm – The most challenging book I have read in a long time. After James was the second book I have read on the Arthur Ellis Best Crime Fiction Novel shortlist for 2017. Its complexity means the posts I will write about the book contain spoilers.

The book opens like a mystery with a dog finding the body of a woman in a shallow grave. The dog is shot by an unknown killer. The bodies of the dog and woman are cremated.

The story proceeds with Alice, a scientist with a big pharmaceutical company in Vancouver. She has left the company over its actions with regard to a drug she has designed, “a narcotic-free neuroenhancer of generative and lateral thought. A creativity pill”. She is now “somewhere north of Georgia, south of the Canadian Shield”.

She describes her drug in a letter she is drafting to a whistleblower site:

In time it took form as a rectangular yellow pill with bevelled edges. She didn’t include (in the letter) the company’s name for the drug – Claritas .4 – it would identify Gilshey (it would come out in time, of course), and anyway it was the wrong name. The name that came to her was Alph. She designed the drug. It should have the name she gave it.

Its effects are intense:

Almost three-quarters of volunteers reported a “jump cut” feeling of having lost two or three seconds of time during composition. Many reported a sense of lucid dreaming while awake. The feeling was of some other agent authoring a part of their experience, their sense of self-command undermined by changing contexts, parallel realities. One described his lab session, going to play tennis, and in the middle of a long rally seeing himself in a staged swordfight against dozens of foes, as if in an old swashbuckler movie. In the lab they called this the Daffy effect, in reference to the Loony Tunes segment in which Daffy and his world are repeatedly redrawn by the animator midstory.

The designers speak of the drug as “an engine to accelerate the real”.

Alice is concerned over the mind altering effects of the drug. She takes the drug. The results are startling. To this moment the book has an intriguing crime fiction premise related to a death, big pharma, Aleph and a whistleblower.

Instead of continuing with that plot line, while under the effects of the drug, Alice follows up on information left behind by the wife of a couple, gone to Africa on a mission, with regard to a mysterious neighbour and his Russian wife. Eventually she meets the neighbour, Clay Shoad, a sculptor recovering from serious injuries.

Dominating his work is an amazing work:

… the shape resolved into a sculpture made from antlers wired together to form, through some closed loop of conception, a giant deer buck. It was ten feet high at the shoulder, fourteen or more at the top of its rack.

Is Alice, alone with Shoad, in danger? The implication of the opening supports risk but there is no more to this story.

Abruptly, just over hundred pages into the story James is introduced:

In truth I am only a failed poet. A failed many things. Bartender, textbook editor, doctoral student, orchestrat publicist. I have no talent but reading.

He has recently been orphaned. His parents died, ostensibly in a car accident, while working at a Turkish refugee camp near Syria.

James is hired by August Durant to analyze the poems of a poetry website, Three Sheets. Durant believes the anonymous poet has written poems that will explain why Durant’s daughter has disappeared three years earlier.

(My next post continues my review.)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

This is Susan Wolfe

In 2014 I read an intriguing legal mystery, The Last Billable Hour, by Susan Wolfe. Written in 1989 it was set in Tweedmore & Slyde a law firm serving the tech industry of Silicon Valley. The all important “billable hour” is impressed upon new lawyer, Howard Rickover immediately on starting work. As he adjusts to the very demanding life of a new lawyer in a busy firm murder intrudes when partner, Leo Slyde, is killed at a firm party. The killer is someone at the party. In a briskly told story Ms. Wolfe admirably combined a vivid picture of law firm life with a mystery. At the end of my review I said “I would like to read more of Ms. Wolfe”.

In a follow up post titled Who is Susan Wolfe?I recounted my online efforts to find out more about Ms. Wolfe and whether she wrote any subsequent legal mysteries.

I found several Susan Wolfe’s, including a pair in California, who were writers but none appeared to be the writer of The Last Billable Hour. One California Susan, the author of The Promised Land, was a “graduate of Stanford University and the prestigious Wexner Heritage Foundation in Jewish studies”. Another California Susan was co-author of From the Ground Up: Building Silicon Valley. Neither California Susan appeared to the right California Susan Wolfe.

Further online research indicated that she had not published any more mysteries but was working on a new legal mystery in 2013.

Inviting readers of the blog to help in my search I received a comment over a year later from Leslie Ingam of the Portuguese Artists Colony that “the” Susan Wolfe I was seeking had completed another mystery, Escape Velocity, which Ms./Mr. Ingam had read in manuscript form and described as “a treat”. The comment said the book would be published in the spring of 2016. I did not see notice of the book being published that spring and did not think more about the book.

Earlier this week I read a post by TracyK in her fine blog, Bitter Tea & Mystery, on her May reading which included The Last Billable Hour. She enjoyed the book and expressed regret Ms. Wolfe had not continued with a series.

Her post prompted me to see if Escape Velocity was published and I found it had been released in October of 2016 and that the author now had a website at

At last I was able to gain actual information on the author.

Her bio on the website sets out:

Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law full time, she bailed out and wrote the best-selling The Last Billable Hour, which won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. She returned to law for aother sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Born and raised in San Bernardino, California, she now lives in Palo Alto, California, with her husband, Ralph DeVoe. Her new novel, Escape Velocity, will be published in October of 2016.

I am glad to be able to answer “Who is Susan Wolfe?” and thank TracyK for the inspiration that allowed me to complete my quest.
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Wolfe, Susan – (2014) - The Last Billable Hour and Who is Susan Wolfe"

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

As I am kind of plodding in my reading of the Arthur Ellis shortlist for the 2017 Award for Best Novel so I have looked back over some reviews from almost a decade ago that I have not posted. Re-reading my review of Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear, the second in the Maisie Dobbs series, reminded me how much I love that series.
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26. – 436.) Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, is doing well as the Depression lays hold to England. She is retained by Joseph Waite to find his daughter, Charlotte, who, in her early 30’s, has run away again. Waite, a wealthy owner of a chain of grocery stores, both attracts her with his devotion to his store and employees and repels him with a feudal attitude towards women. Maisie’s assistant, Billy Beale, continues to suffer from the gassing and leg wounds suffered in WW I. While concerned over his physical well being she is disconcerted by shifting moods. Billy is the rare aide to a female detective. Many male fictional detectives have their devoted assistant. Women have traditionally operated alone. The investigation turns darker when Maisie determines a pair of Charlotte’s closest friends from the time of WW I have been murdered by the same person. A key clue is a small white feather found on each victim. As she seeks out the solution the feathers lead back to WW I. Along the way we see her challenged in her personal relationships and forced to consider the personal reconciliations she urges on clients. A great English T.V. series is bound to come from the novels. Maisie is a wonderful character. I do not like to read books by the same author too quickly as it lessens the enjoyment but I had to read another adventure of Maisie and was not disappointed. Paperback by choice. (June 27/08)
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I think I am going to have to read another in the series this year.