About Me

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

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald

(18. – 860.) Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald – I wanted to call Hildebrand Gurlitt the leading looter of art in the 20th Century but he was just one of a group of unscrupulous German art dealers who plundered Europe when the Nazis were in power.

Gurlitt was born into a family of academics in Dresden. During WW I he was retrieved from the frontlines to serve with the Art Preservation and Momuments unit of which his father was a member. They were in Belgium to “preserve architecture and artifacts from destruction”. Unlike WW II German looting was modest in WW I and his father’s men did work to save artworks from being destroyed during the war.

After the war Gurlitt and his sister were well known members of the German Expressionist Movement.

After years of struggle in the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic Gurlitt became a museum director in the industrial city of Zwickau. Having gained a position in the art world he works to improve his position by publishing academic articles and acquiring a patron.

Gurlitt makes the most important business connection of his life when he gains auto parts industrialist (brake pads) Kurt Kirkbach as a patron. For the rest of his life Gurlitt will be dealing in art for and with Kirkbach.

Gurlitt first shows his talent for exploitation when he helps Kirkbach buy modern art from Germans left in desperate financial circumstances by the crash of 1929.

His prominence in modern art gets him fired by a Nazi leader in 1930 from his museum directorship.

Seeing the growing strength of the Nazis he no longer champions modern art but looks for ways to profit from his knowledge of German Expressionism.

He works out a clever scheme to buy Renaissance Art (approved as traditional art by the Nazis) in Italy to be sold in Germany and then buy German Expressionist works (the disapproved modern art) cheaply for sale in other countries such as the United States.

When the Nazis take over in 1933 there are many sellers of art, even more desperate, than the financially bankrupt of 1929.

Profit is all around for Gurlitt and a select group of art dealers. German museums are being forced to dispose of their modern art.

In 1936 the Nazis move to seizing art from German museums and a year later begin confiscating art from artists. It is estimated 21,000 works of art are taken.

Gurlitt is constantly receiving lucrative commissions for buying and selling these artworks. Occasionally he buys for himself at an unconscionably low price. One of his purchases is for but 1 Swiss Franc.

Once Germany starts taking over other countries the opportunities explode for Gurlitt and other official German art dealers. Between 1937 and 1941 a group of four dealers sold 8,700 artworks in Switzerland alone.

When Austria is annexed to Germany in 1938 there are confiscations of art and then expropriations.

Gurlitt gets a share of confiscated Jewish art.

His lack of morality is most evident in taking Jewish art for Gurlitt is one-quarter Jewish having a Jewish grandmother. Other members of his family agonize over whether to deny grandmother. While millions of Jews are persecuted and murdered Gurlitt continues to deal in art through the whole Holocaust. His Jewish ancestry is overlooked as he is useful to high ranking Nazis.

My next post completes my review of the book with an outline of his actions during WW II and the infamy gained by his son after the war.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo

(9. – 851.) The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo – The Ritz. No hotel in the world is more famous. It has been a destination of the world elite since it opened in the heart of Paris in 1898. Masseo has written a biography of the hotel focusing on its role in World War II.

When the German army rolled into Paris in June of 1940 the Ritz was a favoured destination for its officers. On orders from Berlin the hotel was not formally taken over but remained privately run with Hans Franz Elmiger, its Swiss born deputy manager, in charge of hotel operations.

Marie-Louise, Madame Ritz, widow of the hotel’s founder, Cesar Ritz, remained an active presence in the hotel.

The German military did take all the rooms in one wing of the hotel paying discounted rates.

The American heiress, Laura Mae Corrigan, was evicted from the Imperial Suite in favour of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.

Several long term residents of the hotel continued to stay in the section of the hotel not occupied by the Germans. Most famously, Coco Chanel, maintained a suite.

During the German occupation the Ritz remained the focal point of elite Parisian life. The champagne flowed. The famous mixed cocktails of Frank Meier in the rue Chambon side bar were eagerly consumed. German officers and their French mistresses celebrated good times.

There were Resistance members among the hotel staff but the hotel, as with most of the French population, accommodated if it did not actually collaborate with the German occupiers.

There were spies and plots swirling around the Ritz throughout the war. Mazzeo discusses the meetings of German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. For a few hours those plotters took over Paris until word spread that Hitler had survived.

After the Allied invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 there was a race to return to Paris. While the Allied armies looked to re-take the capital of France among American war correspondents it was a competition to be the first to reach Paris and more important, re-claim the Ritz.

Ernest Hemingway was determined to win the race. “Papa” at 45 effectively formed his own private company within the American Army. He had been going to the Ritz since he had arrived in Paris during the 1920’s and had but enough money for a couple of drinks at the bar.

What I had not known before reading the book was the number of women war correspondents who covered the war. Several had been in as much in action as any of the men.

The relationships of two female journalists with Hemingway involved as much intrigue as any war story. As 1944 unfolded Hemingway’s marriage to Martha Gellhorn was swiftly deterioriating and Hemingway had entered into an affair with Mary Welsh.

In the final rush to Paris Hemingway famously said he intended to liberate the cellars of the Ritz. His arrival at the hotel on the day of the liberation of Paris was appropriately dramatic and he took charge of the hotel and the finest wines were opened. Hemingway was to start each day at the hotel for the next seven months by opening a bottle of fine champagne.

The famous kept coming. A month after liberation Ingrid Bergman arrived at the Ritz and became the lover of famed war photographer, Robert Capa.

The word “fabulous” has been overused but it best describes the Ritz of that era.

Mazzeo portrays a Hotel of grandeur and unsurpassed elegance. Within its rooms, salons, bar and restaurant passed everyone who mattered in Paris. Generation after generation of the elect in France made sure they were seen at the Ritz.

There is a good movie to be made with the dramas of the rich, famous and beautiful unfolding in a beautiful hotel.

The Hotel on Place Vendome is well written. In a couple of chapters it tries too hard for drama but Mazzeo’s life of the Ritz has made me wish I could visit that grand hotel which re-opens this summer after a 2 year renovation.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Series of Books on WW II on Choices and Actions

Over the next 2-3 weeks I am going to be putting up posts that relate to crime and mysteries but are not crime fiction. Instead, I will be writing about a series of non-fiction books on World War II that do not involve battles and strategies. Instead, they deal with the actions of people in Europe, mainly non-military, and the choices they made in and around the war.

The first review is of The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo. It is biography of the Ritz Hotel in Paris especially during the German occupation of the city during the war. Many schemes were conceived in the Ritz and a great deal of champagne consumed and Ernest Hemingway makes an appearance.

The second’s title sets out crime is at the heart of the book. It is Hitler’s Art Thief by Susan Ronald. Hildebrand Gurlitt made a fortune before and during the war through dealing in art works legitimately purchased, bought from desperate Europeans, confiscated from Jews, effectively looted from institutions and occasionally simply stolen. His legacy survived the war and in recent years his son made the father infamous.

The third is Church of Spies by Mark Riebling. Its sub-title of “The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler” encapsulates the theme of the book. It provides an interesting contrast to David Cornwall’s book, Hitler’s Pope. I had not read of the secret activities of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church during WW II.

The fourth book is Seduced by Hitler by Adam LeBor and Roger Boyes. The book explores the decisions made in Germany and across Europe during the war by all types of people. It delves into how the Nazis sought to draw people to their cause. We usually think of Nazi coercion rather than Nazi seduction.

In the reviews and accompanying posts I will occasionally refer to books in the quartet both before and after they have been reviewed on the blog.

There are larger than life stories that would challenge fictional credibility but are true.

Overall the books provide an array of approaches to the issues of choices and actions of WW II Europeans.

I invite you to join me on the journey that begins Sunday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Double Switch by T.T. Monday (Part II)

Double Switch by T.T. Monday (Part II) –In my last post I started a review of Double Switch by T.T. Monday. I considered how baseball has been portrayed as a theme in mysteries. Monday goes deeper into the game than many writers. What made Double Switch different for me as a sports mystery is that the sleuth is a major league ballplayer.
 
Still pitching in the majors at 36 Johnny Adcock has developed a sideline conducting private investigations for members of the baseball community. He is one of the few credible private investigators to have no concerns about making money from his cases. Adcock does the work free of charge as he is being paid over $1,000,000 a year to pitch for the San Jose Bay Dogs.

Tiff Tate arranges a disguise to see him in the bullpen after a game to ask that he help a client, Yonel Ruiz, a Cuban slugger who managed to escape the island and reach the Majors.

Ruiz appears to have been inspired by another power hitting defector from Cuba, Yasiel Puig, currently a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Tiff is a brilliant character and unlike any I have come across in a mystery involving sports:

            Tiff Tate is a major operator behind the scenes in Major 
            League Baseball, right up there with the superagents and the
            major-market GMs. In exchange for a fee rumored to be in
            the mid-six figures, Tiff designs a custom on-field look for
            each of her clients, making recommendations on everything
            from uniform styling and grooming to the song that plays
            when walks up to bat. In an era when start athletes earn
            several times their annual salary in endorsements, Tiff was
            one of the first consultants to recognize the primacy of an
            athlete's image, the importance of building a unique and
            marketable persona.
 
I think of designers making over women on daytime talk shows. While I am unaware of anyone in real life making over professional ballplayers it is a great concept.

Tiff is concerned that her client is being threatened through his family back in Cuba.

In real life ballplayers from Central and South America have had to worry about kidnapping and other dangers from criminal organizations.

Since Adcock has become known for his investigative passion no one in the game is surprised when he asks questions that would be intrusive from other people.

Monday has abundant knowledge of baseball and the way of life and personality traits of major league ballplayers.

Adcock has an outsize ego which is common among elite athletes. You need confidence, even cockiness, to excel in a demanding game. It leaves Adcock often self-absorbed and insensitive.

Adcock’s approach to romantic relationships runs to casual sexual encounters. It is not a surprise he is divorced. Sex is easily available to professional athletes.

At the same time he maintains a solid relationship with his teenage daughter, Izzy. As with many divorced fathers Adcock talks of her being his priority but his off-seasons are not spent near her home.

From covering professional football as a reporter and reading constantly about sports I think Monday has over-emphasized the flaws of the average major leaguer but he does not cast them as evil.

The negatives did not dominate the book but I was left alittle weary of the amorality of those characters in the book who a part of  the major leagues. I have found more moral people on  professional sports teams than those portrayed in Double Switch.

Giving Adcock an unabashed ego makes for an interesting sleuth. Adcock knows he is an elite athlete. His confidence carries over to his sleuthing where he is equally sure he is one of the best. While his personality is occasionally irritating readers will remember Adcock. Nero Wolfe knows he is a genius and embraces opportunities to display his intelligence.

Double Switch is a good book and well worth reading. I would like to see how Adcock’s character develops in future books.
****
Monday, T.T. - Double Switch (Part I)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Double Switch by T.T. Monday (Part I)

Double Switch by T.T. Monday (Part I) – Johnny Adcock is a 36 year old left hand specialist reliever for the San Jose Bay Dogs in Major League baseball. A 14 year veteran he is brought into games, usually the 8th inning and often with runners on base, when the Bay Dogs are facing a tough left hand hitter and the game is on the line. Adcock may work 10 minutes a night. In a busy week he works 3 nights.

Off the field he clearly has lots of down time. Beyond some physical conditioning Adcock has little to do in baseball after his half hour of work per week but he has spent a lifetime honing his pitching skills and training himself mentally to be ready for those 10 minutes of intense pressure in a game.

If you understand the above two paragraphs Double Switch is a book for you. Monday, actually a pseudonym for Nick Taylor, knows major league baseball and does not make the book a primer for baseball. The subtleties of game action and preparation are skilfully described.

Writers who set their mystery in the world of sports face a choice in how to approach the sport at the heart of their book.

They can keep the descriptions simple to allow readers with little or no knowledge of the sport to be able to follow the story. They can minimize the actual sports content of the plot and focus on the characters and the mystery.

In the Eli Sharpe series by Max Everhart there is little recall by Sharpe of his past playing days and only modest portrayals of current game action for those characters playing the game.

In an exchange of letters Max explained:

         When I originally began writing this series, I envisioned
         the stories moving very quickly, so describing actual game
         action was not something I felt I could (or should)
         include.  Too, while I love baseball and could discuss—at
         great length—the endless subtleties and nuisances of the
         game, I wanted (and want) the novels to appeal to more
         than just baseball fans.

The late Alison Gordon wrote a series of mysteries with Toronto newspaper reporter, Kate Henry, as her sleuth. Henry would touch on games played but not discuss them. In the final book of the series and my favourite Saskatchewan mystery, Prairie Hardball, she sets a mystery around the induction into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame of the women from our province who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Beyond mention of the joy they had playing professional ball the games are not discussed.

Monday, in Double Switch, has taken the third approach of entering into the depths of the beauty and challenge of baseball. He discusses the thought a professional pitcher puts into pitching in a tough situation:
 
         With the count 0-2, I want to play with him a little.
         Eventually, Diggy figures out what I have in mind, and I
         deliver: a slider outside, about a foot off the plate, that
         bounces and sends up a puff of dust.......

         I throw another slider in the dirt that Barrow takes for ball
         two ..........

        I plant my left foot on the rubber and stare in. For the third
        time, Diggy gives the signal for the changeup low and inside. I
        shake him off, and then let him cycle through all the signs,
        refusing them all one by one. When he returns to the change I
        nod.

I was reminded of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. In that lovely book Harbach’s plot line includes wonderful descriptions of game action. A powerful plot line involves the hero,  Henry Skrimshander, suddenly becoming unable to throw accurately from shortstop to first base. The mind is interfering with the fundamentally simple skill of throwing the ball.

My preference, whether the story features a lawyer or a ballplayer, is to explore what is happening in court or on the ball diamond. I do not want plots brought down to generic depictions. Not every reader will appreciate that the Double Switch, while appropriate for the plot, is also the description of a managerial strategy in late inning baseball games where the league involved does not have designated hitters. I believe enough readers will grasp the baseball intricacies of the book.

For those not initiated into the game or simply uninterested it is a good mystery that does not require the reader to know baseball.

My next post will actually discuss the story.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

2016 Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlists

For lovers of Canadian mysteries late April is a great time of the year as the Shortlists for the Arthur Ellis Awards are announced. The Crime Writers of Canada held a series of events across Canada tonight to announce the Shortlists.

For the first time in four years I have already read one of the books on the shortlist. Earlier this year I read The Night Bell. I regret to say it was not one of my top Canadian reads of the last year.

Once again it is my intention to read and review and rank the books on the shortlist for Best Novel.

One good thing about not having read most of the Shortlist for Best Novel means I am introduced to some new Canadian mystery writers.

Of the remaining nominees I am glad to see Jayne Barnard on the Shortlist for Best Unpublished Novel. She is a Facebook friend and a true devotee of crime fiction.

The full shortlists are:

Best Novel

Peggy Blair, Hungry Ghosts, Simon & Schuster
John Farrow, The Storm Murders, Minotaur
Andrew Hunt, A Killing in Zion, Minotaur
Peter Kirby, Open Season, Linda Leith Publishing
Inger Ash Wolfe, The Night Bell, McClelland & Stewart
 
Best First Novel

J. Mark Collins, Hard Drive, iUniverse
David Hood, What Kills Good Men, Vagrant Press
Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead, Minotaur
Alexis Koetting, Encore, Five Star
Brian R. Lindsay, Old Bones, Volumes Publishing
 
Best Novella

Jeremy Bates, Black Canyon, Dark Hearts
Alison Bruce, Deadly Season, Imajin Books
M.H. Callway, Glow Glass, Carrick Publishing
Barbara Fradkin, The Night Thief, Orca Book Publishers
Brian Harvey, Beethoven’s Tenth, Orca Book Publishers
 
Best Short Story

Karen Abrahamson, With One Shoe, The Playground of Lost Toys, Exile Press
Hilary Davidson, The Seige, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
Sharon Hunt, The Water Was Rising, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
Scott Mackay, The Avocado Kid, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
S. G. Wong, Movable Type, AB Negative Anthology, Coffin Hop Press
 
Best Book in French

Luc Chartrand, L'Affaire Myosotis, Québec Amérique
Jean-Louis Fleury, L'affaire Céline, Éditions Alire
André Jacques, La bataille de Pavie, Druide        
Jean Lemieux, Le mauvais côté des choses, Québec Amérique
Guillaume Morrissette, L'affaire Mélodie Cormier, Guy Saint-Jean éditeur
 
Best Juvenile/YA Book

Robert Hough, Diego’s Crossing, Annick Press
Jeff Ross, Set You Free, Orca
Kevin Sands, The Blackthorn Key, Aladdin
Allan Stratton, The Dogs, Scholastic
Stephanie Tromley, Trouble is a Friend of Mine, Kathy Dawson Books
 
Best Nonfiction Book

Gary Garrison, Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth about Canada’s Prisons, University of Regina Press
Dean Jobb, Empire of Deception, Harper Collins Publishers
Debra Komar, The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin Jr., Goose Lane Editions
Jerry Langton, Cold War, Harper Collins Publishers
 
The Dundurn Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel

Jayne Barnard, When the Flood Falls
Alice Bienia, Knight Blind
Pam Isfeld, Brave Girls
J.T. Siemens, Better the Devil You Know
J.G. Toews, Give Out Creek

Monday, April 18, 2016

More Bookshops in Canada's Booktown

Tulips at Butchart Gardens
In my last post I wrote about two of the six bookstores in Sidney, British Columbia. Sidney is Canada’s only booktown.

After visiting Beacon Books and the Military and History Bookstore my next stop was at Tanner’s Books. The store provides readers with a wide variety of new books. What makes the store unique are two areas. It has a huge magazine section with over 2,000 magazines and 40 newspapers. In the back is the absorbing Travel and Nautical Room. Within the room are over 500 maps and nautical charts. As well there is a large collection of travel and nautical books.

I spent some time in the Mystery section. The photo shows a selection of the books in the section that includes books by Peter May I have read and reviewed.

Next door is The Children’s Bookshop. It is a bright airy bookstore with a large collection of children’s books. The website for Sidney as Booktown describes the books available:

We have books on everything from A to Z: airplanes, bears, cooking, drawing, Encyclopaedia Brown, fairies, growing up, Harry Potter, inuksuks, jokes, kites, little girls, mermaids, Nancy Drew, ordinary kids, pirates, quilting, rocks, sisters, totem poles, underwear, volcanoes, Waldo, x-rays, yearlings, and Zambonis.

Moving down the street is The Haunted Bookshop. Beyond having a great name it is Vancouver Island’s oldest bookshop being founded in 1947. It was nice to see a bust of Shakespeare welcoming book lovers.

Inside is an intriguing combination of out-of-print books and ordinary secondhand books. Antiquarians will enjoy the opportunity to look for books.

I took a look at the paperback mysteries. There is a modest selection.

On the way out of the store I noticed a few paperbacks on a table. On top was Alison Gordon’s book, Safe at Home. While glad to see her mysteries in the store I was sad that they were on the clearance table at $1.00 per book. I guess I had hoped she was a more significant author whose books kept their value. I bought Safe at Home.

My last stop was at Galleon Books and Antiques. With regard to books:

This shop specializes in non-fiction subjects, including BC history, Exploration, First Nations, Military, and Art History. Antiquarian and collectible books can also be found.

There is a greater assembly of antiques and collectibles than books in the store.

After completing the tour of the books Sharon and I walked abit along the waterfront and decided our next stop would be the Butchart Gardens. They are among the most beautiful in the world. Below is a photo of part of the Sunken Garden.
 
 
 
 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sidney, British Columbia is Canada's Booktown

Sharon and I are spending an extra long weekend on Vancouver Island. Yesterday we made a trip out to Sidney, about 25 km, from Victoria. Sidney is unique in Canada as it is our nation's only booktown.

It is a beautiful weekend on the island with the tulips and fruit trees in blossom. Sidney's downtown has planters filled with flowers. Coming from Saskatchewan where last weekend it had reached -16C it was a lovely welcome to the Island.

Beacon Street is the main shopping street stretching from the highway to the ocean. In a 5 block stretch are 6 bookstores. It is remarkable to find 6 bookstores in a community of 11,500 people. During the day I stopped at all of the bookstores.

The first was Beacon Street Books. On the Sidney Booktown
website it is described as: 

 A general bookstore of secondhand books – 4,000 sq.ft. – thousands of good used books covering categories the Arts,
Classics & Literature, General Fiction, Nature, Travel, Nautical, Music, Reference, 
    Canadiana, Self-Help, and the Sciences. Browse in our Modern First
    Editions and Authors Signed editions, and look through our
    collectable, rare, and antiquarian books.

I looked through the general mystery section of current books. There was a nice selection but I restrained myself.

My next stop down the street was at the Military and History Bookshop. The store had the largest collection of military books I have seen since I was at a comparable bookstore in the other booktown I have visited, Stillwater, Minnesota.

As you enter the store there are a pair of mannequins in Canadian uniforms. In the hand of the female mannequin in a naval uniform is a copy of the book She Went to War - The Rhonda Cornum Story by Rhonda Cornum.

I spent quite awhile browsing in the sections dedicated to World War II and left with two books.

The first, Seduced by Hitler by Adam LeBor and Roger Boyes is about the choices made by people who lived under Nazi rule in and outside Germany during WW II. The decisions made by ordinary Europeans during the war have long fascinated me.

The second, How Papa Won The War by Gordon Wagner, is an autobiography of a veteran who grew up in rural Saskatchewan and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war. He spent time on duty in Canada, England and India.

In addition to the beautiful flowers Sidney has lifesize statues of people sitting on benches along Beacon Street.

Next to Tanner Books is a statue of an older woman reading a book. A town putting up statues with a reading theme is impressive.

After my tour Sharon and I finished the day in Sidney with a Pier Platter (smoked trout, citrus prawns, smoked salmon, crusted tuna, pickled salad, olives, almonds and flatbread) and fresh salmon main course at Haro's Restaurant.

My next post will cover the remaining four bookstores in Sidney.

(I took the photos for this post with my trusty IPhone Plus.)