About Me

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

Monday, March 7, 2011

"R" is for Keith Raffel

Kerrie Smith has been hosting the Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise. Each week bloggers make a post that relates to the letter of the week through the name of the author or the book. This week’s letter is “R”.
            This week “R” is for Keith Raffel a mystery author residing in California’s Silicon Valley at Palo Alto.
            He has written a pair of mysteries featuring Ian Michaels. I have read dot.dead which is the first in the series. It was a good mystery set in the high technology of Silicon Valley. It is the first mystery I have read which relates to the computer industry of northern California. I found it a book combining his personal relationships, a tech story and the murder investigation. It fitted well with the area being a precise, logical book with a scientific process to solution.
            The second in the series is Smasher. I am looking forward to reading it.
            Keith became a mystery writer after a pair of successful careers. He was counsel to the United States Senate Intelligence Committee dealing with America’s varied intelligence agencies. He moved back to California and into the computer industry eventually setting up his own business. He describes the venture on his website:
“UpShot Corporation was a pioneer in “cloud computing,” providing software that lives in cyberspace rather than on the user’s PC. I even hold a patent for our graphic user interface. (Not bad for a history major!) In 2003 we sold the company to Siebel Corporation which, in the way of the Valley, was swallowed up itself by Oracle a year later.”
            Two years I met Keith at the “M” is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo. He had come to listen to a trio of mystery authors talk about their books. My wife, Sharon, and our son, Jonathan, and myself had the chance to talk to Keith after the event across the street from the store in a nice little restaurant with a group of mystery lovers and authors.
            Keith is an engaging man, easy to talk to on almost any topic. We enjoyed talking to him about writing, new technology and mysteries.
            He had a personal method of promoting his book. He handed us a business card containing particulars of the book and a picture of its cover. It helped remind me to buy the book when I returned to the bookstore a few days later.
            Keith has an interesting website. It can be found at http://www.keithraffel.com/. In his blog he is discussing the challenges of epublishing and promoting an ebook. I hope he finds a way to publish a paper copy of his third book.
            I recommend reading Keith’s books. For readers it is too bad he spent so long in earlier careers.
           

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville

22. - 580.) The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville – It is impossible to put the book down during the first 25 pages. One of Belfast’s “hard men”, Gerry Fegan, is drinking himself insensible every night to drown out the voices of the 12 ghosts of people he has killed as a member of the IRA during the Troubles. I thought of Hamish haunting Ian Rutledge in the Charles Todd series of mysteries. Fegan’s ghosts demand far more requiring him to take vengeance on the men that either ordered or participated in their deaths with him.
To listen to the ghosts would require Fegan to turn on the friends and colleagues he has had since childhood. He would be a traitor to the movement that has dominated his adult years. Yet the movement has little need anymore of hard men. The leadership has become part of the political process. Hard men are only called upon to intimidate in support of a political goal or to assist in a corrupt business venture.
When Fegan can no longer resist the screaming ghosts and kills a colleague, Michael McKenna, he sets in motion a roaring ride back into the brutal 30 year civil war that almost destroyed Belfast.
The book is compelling but harrowing. Fegan sets out to exact vigilante justice. He has been a cold killer through his adult life. Can a reader, should a reader like or feel sympathy for this vicious killer continuing to kill? I have a comparable ambivalence reading the Michael Crais novels featuring Joe Pike. What is justice for killers? Can the dead expect Biblical justice? Forgiveness was a word lost in Northern Ireland in the past four decades.
J.D. Singh at Sleuth of Baker Street has been recommending the book since it was first published. His praise was warranted.
The story is a powerful exploration of the psychological costs of killing upon the killers. Fegan has been profoundly damaged. Superb. (Apr. 22/11)

The Widows of Broome by Arthur Upton

21. – 580.) The Widows of Broome by Arthur Upton (1952) – Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is back in northwest Australia. He has been called to the pearling town of Broome where two widows have been strangled to death. Bony goes undercover as the visiting friend of the commanding police officer. In an era when travel was more time consuming and demanding it is not unusual to have a guest for weeks.
     Broome had been famous for its pearl shell industry. World War II and a changing world have left the industry barely surviving.
     The murders are a puzzle as there were no connections between the women, no physical clues and no witnesses. For this mystery Bony relies on his analytical and deductive skills as well as his physical tracking talents.
     Bony is a profiler 40 years before the term was invented. He works to identify a serial killer by assessing physical clues to construct the mind of the killer. While others can only think of a beast in lust Bony is looking for a murderer whose motives are not overtly sexual. He works to find the similarities in the murders to establish a pattern that will guide them to protecting the next potential victim. He carefully considers torn nightgowns and flakes of skin.
     Human tracks read by Bony and an aboriginal tracker are again an important part of a rural Australian investigation 60 years ago. Tracks are the most significant forensic work of Bony’s generation.
     During the investigation Bony draws upon Earle Dickenson, a local drunk, who resorts to drops of battery acid in water when out of money and desperate for drink.
    The bias towards a half aborigine police inspector in the early 1950’s is barely concealed by the community.
    While not as compelling as Cake in a Hat Box it is a skillfully written police procedural whose investigation would be contemporary in our era. Upton writes mysteries firmly rooted in Australia. Very good. (Apr.21/11)

"P" is for Louise Penny

This week Kerrie Smith is hosting books related to “P” on her blog, Mysteries in Paradise for the ongoing meme of the Alphabet in Crime Fiction. My post is “P” is for Louise Penny, a Canadian author residing in Quebec.

She spent a significant number of years working for the national public broadcasting system, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as a journalist, producer and host of radio programs.

After getting married in her late 30’s she gave up her broadcasting career and turned to writing.

Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Surete has become the most famous current mysteries by a Canadian author.

She has won an impressive list of awards for her books four Agatha award and Canada’s Arthur Ellis award. She is likely to win another Arthur Ellis this year. I have personally found two of her books among the best books of the year. I expect her current book Bury Your Dead will make my Best of 2011. Kerrie and Bernadette have both enjoyed her books this year.

I have read all 6 books in the series and enjoyed every one of them.

The setting for most of the mysteries, Three Pines, is a beautiful Quebec village that readers dearly wish existed in real life.

In addition to fine characterization and interesting plots the early mysteries were remarkable for the distinctive means of murder. One victim was killed by an arrow while another was electrocuted during a curling game.

While her books are excellent mysteries I most appreciate that the people, communities and plots are clearly a part of Quebec.

As the series has matured her hero, Gamache, has become a fascinating complex man blessed with a loving marriage to Reine Marie. I heard Louise say during a radio interview that Gamache is her dream husband. She said that if she had to live with a fictional character because she spent so much time with him while writing she wanted someone she would marry.

In Bury Your Dead Gamache is the rare mystery hero challenged by past mistakes who perseveres amidst his doubts and regrets.

It is a wonderful series.

Here is a link to my review of Bury Your Dead.

Thoughts on Questions and Answers with Robert Rotenberg

My thoughts on Robert’s Answers conclude my three days with Robert Rotenberg. Below this post are my posts reviewing the book and the Questions and Answers with Robert.

Through the process of setting up the blogger tour and providing questions and reviewing the book I have appreciated the time and effort made by Anneliese Grosfeld at Simon and Schuster that made The Guilty Plea a good experience.

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Answer #1 - I was surprised that Robert found writing about money produced boring scenes. Money is a great subject.

It is also often a difficult matter for lawyers and accused. Few accused have any significant money. Many have no money. I know I will be able to appreciate the rant of Nancy Parish in the next book.

Of fictional characters Mickey Haller, created by Michael Connelly, is realistically dealing with the issue of money with every client.

John Mortimer’s character, Rumpole of the Bailey, was another fictional lawyer always facing the challenges of money in criminal defence.

For those clients with some money many times there is a tension underlying the relationship between lawyer and client over the issue of money. I am sure Robert can address that tension in a future book.

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Question #2 - I did not expect Robert was inspired by specific judges when he created his judges but I am sure he was tempted to put a recognizable trait or two from real life in his judges.

Even lawyers sometimes spend too little time thinking about judges as actual people beneath the robes. I am glad Robert works to make his judges rounded people.

It was interesting to see a judge laughing at Robert’s joke that Robert did not know the lawyer the judge thought the character was based on. In court lawyers always laugh at the jokes judges.

Sometimes the laughter can be inappropriate or overdone. I sat in on part of the criminal trial of former lawyer and sports agent, Alan Eagleson, over 15 years ago in Toronto. The judge made a small joke. The lawyers politely laughed. Eagleson laughed almost uproariously. It was barely appropriate for the accused to be laughing and completely transparent.

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Question #4 - It was a powerful example in the young boy seeing Albert Fernandez’s father as the hero for influencing his son to do the right thing.

I believe having good lawyers, in court and ethically, reflects reality and makes for better fiction than the sometimes crude caricatures of lawyers opposing the hero lawyer.

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Question #5 - A discussion of plausible alternatives within a legal mystery shall have to wait for another day in the future when either I can look back with Robert on his plotting decisions or we look to the plots of different legal mystery authors.

I am going to take Robert up on that “very long lunch” to discuss plot.

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Question #6 - I expect it is as great a challenge trying to write about a child as a witness as it is to cross-examine a child. The delicate probing of a child’s recollections can be very tense. There is little chance to challenge answers in the ways lawyers and authors like to confront witnesses.

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With his third book well under way I look forward to reading a further legal adventure in Toronto created by Robert.

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Any readers in the Toronto area are encouraged to go down to the Eaton Centre on May 6 to hear a discussion between Robert and Eddie Greenspan. Each is a quick witted knowledgeable lawyer with strong opinions. I wish I could be there. Particulars of the event are:


Questions and Answers with Robert Rotenberg

Today I am participating in the blogger tour organized by Simon and Schuster for Robert Rotenberg's book, The Guilty Plea. It is my second post in three days with Robert Rotenberg. Tomorrow I will post some thoughts on Robert’s Questions and Answers. My review of the book is below this post. Robert, a Toronto lawyer, actively working as a criminal defence lawyer provided vivid answers to my questions. I thank him for his candour. The Questions and Answers are:

1.)    DiPaulo never discusses his fees with Samantha. Every Toronto lawyer and every Saskatchewan lawyer I know would make that a topic during the first meeting. Most fictional lawyers are unconcerned about money. Why is there no discussion and agreement on fees?

Interesting you asked. I wrote a number of scenes in the first two books when the lawyers talked with their clients about money. How to put this gently? They sucked. They were the most boring scenes you could imagine. But, trust me fees are very much on my mind – every client, every day. So in Book Three, Nancy Parish has a long rant about how when you do a big murder trial for a client on legal aid your whole financial (and personal) life goes out the window.

2.)    While I have seen a few Ontario judges none of the judges I know appear to be models for your fictional judges. Were your judges inspired by actual judges?

I so love my judges. They are such great fun to create and write about. The tremendous writer Giles Blunt says he often judges (that word) a writer by the strength of their minor characters. Of course these are not based on actual judges – none of the characters are. But that is not to say I don’t slice little bits of people I see and splice them together. My real goal is that no character be a cliché. Maybe a bit over the top sometimes, but real people. In The Guilty Plea, I had the opportunity to show Judge Summers had another dimension. (To brag just a bit, the scene when Ari Greene goes to see Summers in his the judge’s chambers is one I am very proud of. You will see that I ended a key section of the book with it.)

A funny story: After Old City Hall came out, a judge stopped me in the hall one day and said: “Robert, that lawyer in the book, Nancy Parish, I know exactly who you based her on.” “Oh,” I said, smiling a bit to myself I must admit, “Who?” He then named a female lawyer. “Funny you should say that,” I told the judge. “You know, I’ve never heard of that woman in my life.” We both laughed. Here’s the kicker – it was true. I’d never heard of her before.

3.)    Most legal mysteries concentrate on either the prosecutor or the defence counsel. Why do you focus equally upon them?

Great question. I didn’t know a great deal about mysteries when I started Old City Hall. Never really thought of it as a mystery, indeed still don’t. But I did start reading a number of so called ‘legal thrillers’ as I went along. I always found when the Crown, or the judge, was the nasty bad guy it always seemed so cliché. Not real. I’m only interested in trying to tell the story of this city, this time, as I see it.

Nice note: I went to speak to a grade ten English class a while ago. They’d studied Old City Hall, and it was amazing. At one point I asked, “Who is the hero of the book?” A question I don’t really have the answer to. Kids said Greene, Brace, Kennicott…then one shy boy put up his hand and said “I think it was Albert Fernandez’s father. He’s the one who influenced his son to do the right thing.”

The answer totally blew me away. Brings tears to my eyes even as I write this.
I guess that’s the best answer of all.

4.)    Can a legal mystery which is not weighted to Crown or defence end in a conviction?

Happens every day in real life.

5.)    Juries and judges want a plausible alternative to the accused being the killer. In The Guilty Plea the alternative did not come until the very end though all the lawyers and police were very thorough in their investigations. It would have been more credible to me to have the alternative introduced earlier in the plot as in Scott Turow’s book Innocent. Could you explain the plotting decision to have the alternative at the end?

Well we need a very long lunch to talk about plot. The toughest thing. Plotting decisions. That’s a new term for me. Thanks, now I won’t sleep tonight!

I know there are some people who read these answers who will not have read the book, so I’m choosing my words carefully. I think if you look back again at the book you’ll see that in fact I did cover all my bases.

6.)    Having a 4 year old, Simon, as a key witness brought back memories for me of a case where I questioned a 4 year old. I sent the accused out of the courtroom during the evidence as I could not figure out how the accused should look while the child testified and wanted the jury to focus on the evidence not my client’s reaction to the evidence. In my case, unlike your case, the police and social worker had not asked neutral questions in their interview. Had you considered making Simon an actual trial witness?

I did but it was very clumsy. And I try to always change things up for the reader. If you flip through either of my books, you’ll see that each chapter starts in a very different way.

Same goes for the courtroom scenes. It is boring to just read about witness after witness. By doing it this way, the video almost becomes a character. There’s the making of the video, the feel and sound of playing the video, and Greene’s reaction to seeing himself on tape. I think this is much stronger, richer.

And, this is evidence introduced at the bail hearing. A child would never testify at that stage in the proceedings.

Thanks for the informed questions

The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg

I have been looking forward to today for some time as I start a series of three posts involving Robert Rotenberg’s new book, The Guilty Plea. When Simon and Schuster invited me to participate in the blogger tour for the book I immediately accepted. The first post is a review of the book today. Tomorrow’s post has Questions and Answers with Robert. The post the day after tomorrow is my thoughts on Robert’s Answers.
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20. - 579.) The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg – A lawyer’s nightmare! Samantha Wyler brings the bloody knife used to kill her husband, Terry Wyler, to the office of defence counsel Ted DiPaulo. No doubt guided by the real life example of Edward Greenspan Q.C. who once had a gun delivered to him in a paper bag, DiPaulo deftly delivers the knife to the police through another law firm he has hired for himself so the police cannot verify the source of the knife. Samantha and Terry were in the midst of a bitter divorce. Compounding her problems Samantha has threatened Terry and told her 4 year old son, Simon, the night of the killing that she would not see him again for a long time. DiPaulo faces a daunting set of facts.
            Returning from Old City Hall to lead the investigation are Detective Ari Greene and officer Daniel Kennicott. They are careful thorough investigators.
            The evidence is so formidable that, for the first time in my crime fiction reading, DiPaulo explores a guilty plea with his client. A plea to manslaughter and a few years in jail is an alternative to be considered when a 1st degree murder conviction means 25 years in jail. DiPaulo treads a delicate ethical path in negotiations on a guilty plea when Samantha has not admitted killing her husband. To plead guilty requires an admission of guilt. I have had numerous clients agonizing as Samantha did over whether to plead guilty when they did not admit doing wrong.
            Eventually choosing to go to trial DiPaulo is haunted by the decision whether to call Samantha as a witness. It is often the most difficult decision a defence counsel will make in a trial. There is reference to the Milgaard case where the accused was wrongfully convicted and did not testify. I knew Milgaard’s lawyer. He was a very good trial lawyer. In Emily Couric’s book The Trial Lawyers about 10 famous American trial lawyers James F. Neal said you need the defendant to provide a rational defence, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes avoided calling the defendant as he worried the jury would misunderstand the defendant and Edward Bennett Williams said call the Defendant. It is my belief Canadian juries want to hear the defendant testify in trials.
            Senior Crown Prosecutor, Jennifer Raglan, and DiPaulo are experienced capable trial lawyers. The book is at its best in their offices and the courtroom. Rotenberg captures the anxiety, the intensity, the split second decisions during questioning witnesses, the thrill of forcing an admission from a witness, the sudden adjustments to unexpected evidence and the unrelenting strain day and night of lawyers engaged in a major trial.
            Outside the courtroom sexual affairs complicate the lives of several characters and enliven the story.
            As a defence counsel I wished Rotenberg had not made the case for the Crown so strong. Yet real life sees many accused facing overwhelming evidence. It is a very good book. Rotenberg is a master legal mystery craftsman in the rank of writers such as Scott Turow and William Deverell. (Apr. 30/11)

Trial of Passion by William Deverell

16. - 578.) Trial of Passion by William Deverell – In the mid-1990’s a naked, but for a men’s tie, Kimberly Martin adorned with lipstick designs (“Shameless” being the brand) and red circled nipples makes an early morning arrival at the home of retired Anglican bishop, Dr. Hawthorne, accusing her UBC law professor, Jonathan O’Donnell, the next door neighbour, of raping her.
    Experienced Vancouver defence counsel, Gowan Cleaver, is doing a perfectly competent job of defence but the professor longs for the best, Arthur Beauchamp. Unfortunately for O’Donnell, Arthur, pushing 63 has decided to retire to Garibaldi Island in the Gulf Islands. He has tired of his long expired marriage to Annabelle and is disinterested in continuing to muck around in the courts of the land.
    All are surprised that the pompous, he would prefer donnish, Beauchamp would retire to an acreage on the rustic island. Yet the Latin quoting lawyer is but another character on the island. He does struggle to convince some neighbours his name is pronounced Beecham. He adjusts well to his fellow residents.
    Beauchamp is comfortably settled when the firm descends by float plane to lure him to defend O’Donnell. Even a lurid tale of lust and a well paying client, the Faculty Association, cannot persuade his return.
    Eventually O’Donnell’s entreaties bring Beauchamp back into the fray. It is a dandy trial with vivid evidence. After a faltering beginning Beauchamp returns to the quick witted skilful advocate he was before his departure for Eden. I wish myself and the lawyers I oppose in court were as deft and clever in our comments. It is an amazing trial with twists I neither could have forseen nor have I seen in a court. Deverell creates a trial that is compelling in the extreme while keeping the evidence and arguments within the rules of court. 
I defy a reader to put down the book as the trial accelerates.
    While a wonderful writer of trials Deverell has also created a fascinating personal story of the troubled big city lawyer creating a new life in rural Canada. I am seeking out more Beauchamp. Great. (Mar. 26/11)
 

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear

19. – 578.) Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs is consulted by an ambivalent Georgina Bassington-Hope, a well known journalist and member of a great English eccentric family. Her brother, Nick, has died in a fall from a scaffolding at a gallery where he was preparing an exhibition of his never seen masterpiece. Maisie and Billy Beale undertake the investigation. Did he accidentally fall? Was he pushed? Did he choose to jump?
            The Bassinton-Hopes are a well-to-do family of artists probably best describe as Bohemians, but for the oldest daughter Nolly. They live without concern about money amidst the Depression crushing England.
            Winspear contrasts the indulgent rich with the desperate working class. There is a grind to life for the poor unnoticed by the wealthy. Terrible situations arise. Authors have a choice when dealing with bad circumstances. Do they shy away? Winspear is an honest writer. She does not flinch. Her characters undergo genuine adversity.
            As the investigation proceeds it is clear Nick was an exceptional artist especially with regard to World War I where he was a member of the Artists Rifles. (A unit that has ultimately become the famous SAS.)
            Nick has used his art to escape the dark depths of his Great War. It is believed his masterpiece is his defining view of the war. What could he portray in a triptych of the war that could be deadly?
            In a beautiful phrase he is described as an artist who could touch the truth in his work. He is a war artist burdened with the vision to see war with a clarity denied the ordinary man. Last month Michael and I saw the powerful paintings of such artists at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Two years ago Sharon and I had been moved by an exhibition of Canada’s war artists at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg. Having seen their works from every conflict in which Canada’s military has participated in the past 100 years I can appreciate the emotion Nick’s masterpiece churned up within his killer.
            Maisie continues to gain psychological insights from imitating physical actions but her most effective investigative tool is her ability to listen. She has an extraordinary empathy that draws out those talking to her. Maisie is really a member of the private procedural school of investigation with her attention to detail and organization.  
            A thoroughly modern Maisie distances herself from her suitor, Dr. Andrew Dene, as she desires independence more than relationship. As a woman of the 1930’s she cannot see a marriage where she can pursue her career.
            Maisie continues her quest that “those affected by my work are at peace with the outcome”. For a lawyer who is a litigator it is a rare trial or even a settlement that produces such peace. To have peace after conflict requires acceptance and, often forgiveness. Both traits are rarer in the real world than Maisie’s world. An excellent book. (Apr. 8/11)

Whodunit Mystery Bookstore?




I visited the Whodunit? mystery bookstore in Winnipeg on a lovely May day in 2010 while at the Rotary District Convention. Winding our way from downtown to 165 Lilac Street Sharon and I parked in front of the store. I was warmly welcomed when I entered the store. The store is crowded with a large selection of mysteries.
            While traveling I try to find authors from the city or area I am visiting when I go to a store. After browsing through the store I asked for recommendations on a mystery set in Winnipeg or Manitoba. After a few moments Armin Wiebe’s book Murder in the Gutenthal was suggested. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and exchanged emails with Armin. He advised the store is a short distance from his residence and said his late wife had done her best to keep the store in business. I appreciate booksellers who can recommend local authors.
            They also have a nice website located at http://www.whodunitcanada.com/home
and a newsletter with lots of reviews and author information.
I enjoyed my visit to the store and plan to go again on my next trip to Winnipeg.

Thoughts on Questions and Answers with Jill Edmondson

This weekend’s Jill Edmondson posts conclude with an essay on her answers to my questions posted last night. After reading Jill’s essay Spenser to Yeats I had a better understanding of the origins, character and actions of Sasha Jackson.

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In her essay Spenser to Yeats Jill quotes Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1944 definition of the hardboiled detective:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  … He must be a complete man and a common man, yet an unusual man.  He must be …a man of honor.  He is neither a eunuch nor a satyr.  I think he might seduce a duchess, and I’m quite certain he would not spoil a virgin.  If he is a man of honor in one thing, he’s that in all things.  He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.  He is a common man or he could not go among common people.  He has a sense of character or he would not know his job.  He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without due and dispassionate revenge.  He is a lonely man, and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

She looks to author Jon L. Breen to add to the defining of hardboiled:

Urban atmosphere, the tough slang, the p.i. code of honor, the snappy repartee, the colorful villains, the contrast of low life and high society, plenty of physical action… and vivid violence, gallows humour, picturesque prose (including similes)…

Jill’s thoughts on assorted fictional hardboiled detectives led me to reflect on their nature. Tough girls and guys see little grey in the world. They live in the stark absolutes of black and white. Sasha is no exception. She has an opinion on every subject and has no doubt she is correct. Compromise is not in the vocabulary of the hardboiled.

Jill provides her own assessment of the genre:

Toughness and raw, pared-down characters and styles seem to be uniformly present within hardboiled fiction, but those characteristics alone do not identify or define hardboiled fiction.  Many of the genre’s hallmarks have to do with the characters’ attributes and conduct (Blade 69), both of which are, or have in recent years become, malleable and elastic.  One feature, however, is stoically present in all hardboiled fiction, whether classic or contemporary.  Eclipsing habits and foibles as hardboiled imperatives is the “moral code” or “code of honour” (Blade 70).  The private eye may drink or not, he may have a family or not, but the one inviolable tenet of the prototypical hardboiled detective is the ever present, often unique and occasionally contradictory moral compass.  Chandler stated this moral compass may permit the spoiling of a duchess, but commands respect for a virgin; in doing so Chandler defined by omission the unfailingly amorphous internal value system that guides a hardboiled sleuth in all matters.  

I have long admired Spenser’s strong sense of integrity as he solved mysteries around Boston. Hawk was far more flexible with personal morals but equally strong when wrong had been done.

Sasha is strong in her moral code but does have what Jill referred to in her essay as an “ethical elasticity”. It is most evident in Sasha’s readiness, even eagerness, to commit break-ins during investigations. Were she not the hero her actions would be called home invasions.

Hardboiled detectives are often noted for their quick retorts and sharp wit. Jill’s essay quotes W. Russel Gray’s description of hardboiled language as “blue-collar poetry”.

Humour brightens the hard edged world of the tough detective. Jill speaks of Stephanie Plum. I loved the casual humour of Elvis Cole, especially in the early books of the series. Sasha, especially in Dead Light District, is funny. Were it not for her humour Sasha would be a grim and bitter creature.

I think of Elvis Cole rather than Spenser when I compare Sasha to leading tough guy characters (I was going to say “tough person” but it sounded pretentious in the hardboiled world and too conscious an effort at political correctness). Spenser is a generation older than Sasha. If I ever read Sasha has cartoon momentoes and knickknacks in her office I will know she is a soul mate of Elvis. In the female world of detection she is a worthy Canadian cousin for Stephanie Plum.

One of my regrets with many current hard boiled heroes is the extremely high body count they leave in their wake. I hope Sasha can remain a tough girl without littering her adventures with mounds of bodies.

Jill sets out in her essay that the gun is not a requirement of being a hardboiled detective. With strong laws against carrying handguns it is no surprise that Sasha does not tote a gun around Toronto.

Sasha is more like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone in turning killers over to the authorities rather than meting out personal punishment.

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I think the Danforth is a wonderful neighbourhood. My best friend in Toronto lives just off the Danforth. Sharon, myself and our family have enjoyed many fine meals in the Greek restaurants along the street. Long may it stay a bastion of independent businesses.

Just across the Don Valley is my favourite bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street.

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I cannot see a tough guy detective on foot. There is something in the male psyche that would make it almost impossible for a tough guy to walk around a city. Walking would diminish the tough guy image. It works well for Sasha to have time to think while walking and her tough girl persona remains intact while she walks (I almost said strolls) across Toronto.

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Jill’s comment today sets out her action after receiving the condom covered cucumber. If the story should appear in Sasha’s future I am sure Sasha will tell the “movie producer” where he could place the item.

Questions and Answers with Jill Edmondson

 

Tonight continues a weekend with Jill Edmondson as I post questions and answers with the author. Her forthright personality is evident in every answer. Below this post are the reviews of her books Blood and Groom and Dead Light District. Tomorrow evening I will post some reflections on Jill’s answers with references to and quotes from her academic work on the mystery genre.

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1.) My first reaction to seeing Sasha as your character's first name was to think of a man. Why did you choose Sasha as her first name?

That name has long been a favourite of mine, no idea why.  I remember, as a kid, hearing that then PM Pierre Trudeau had a son named Sasha and thinking to myself “why did he give his son a girl’s name?”

 2.) Canada has few tough guy let alone tough girl mystery heroes. Why did you make Sasha such a hard edged P.I.?

That may be exactly why...  I saw a hole and decided to fill it. Her personality is like mine in many ways (but I can’t sing, don’t play drums, and have never worked for a phone sex hotline!)

When I was doing my MA (at Athabasca University), I did two independent reading courses in which I studied women in mysteries, in Canadian mysteries in particular.  One paper I did was called “From Spenser to Yeats: Feminism’s Answer to the Hardboiled Sleuth is on the Wagon and Rides a Harley”. “Spenser” was for the Robert B. Parker sleuth, and “Yeats” was for a sleuth named Jane Yeats, written by Liz Brady.  Jane is hard-edged, ballsy and someone I’d love to have a beer with. 

I’ve long been a fan of the modern day hardboiled sleuth, which includes Spenser, but is also defined by Lawrence Block and his character Matthew Scudder, and Elvis Cole by Robert Crais, plus many others.  As well, I’m a die-hard fan of the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich.  I like the humour in the Evanovich books, and I like the “down these mean streets...” characteristics of hardboiled private eyes.  My intention was to capture the best of both worlds. 

Full disclosure: All through college and university (eleven years fulltime, plus two more part time), plus during the phases when I was starting and aborting one career after another, I worked in bars.  Much of what ends up in the books is loosely based on things I’ve seen or people I’ve met in real life... usually in a bar, and usually when I was cutting them off, or when asking the bouncer to escort someone out.  A “movie producer” once tipped me a condom covered cucumber.  He had autographed the condom.  You can’t make this shit up!  I used to get tipped in hash quite a lot... I’m not a toker... why are people giving me hash???  Obviously, there are parallels between the hardboiled gumshoe world and my spotty bartending history.

Also, since I mentioned the MA thing above, I should say that Dead Light District is a result of a paper I wrote when I was taking a course called “Equality in Context” at Athabasca University.  The final paper was on human rights and the sex trade.  I had lots of fascinating “leftover” research that didn’t make it into the essay, but became a book instead.  Much of the “grittiness” of the commercial sex world comes from that. Dead Light District practically wrote itself.

3.) My maternal aunts and uncles and cousins have lived west of Yonge. Of the third generation to live in Toronto the farthest east any of them has gotten is Cabbagetown. With Sasha residing east of Yonge is that your area of Toronto? Will Sasha ever head to western Toronto?

When I wrote Blood and Groom I was living on the 22nd floor of an apartment at Broadview and Danforth, overlooking the Don Valley Parkway.  The book was totally inspired by my view. I kept thinking: That would be a great place to kill someone!  It can be so noisy (trains, traffic) and it has so few people (witnesses) that is could be an ideal place to find a corpse.

With Blood and Groom, I never really said where Sasha lives, but I had an idea it was along the Danforth because that was (and is my ’hood).  In Dead Light District, I specify that she lives on Carlaw, a few blocks south of Danforth Avenue.

As for the blocks around Church and Carlton, Jarvis and Wellesley, and the area where the investigation in Dead Light District takes place, well, that’s old stomping grounds for me.   I lived on Wood, then Maitland, then Alexander for many years.  I know the area well, and know which blocks to avoid and/or when to avoid them.  Also, Sasha’s office (in Blood and Groom) is based on where I had my office for a while, at Yonge and Gloucester.  The other tenants who rent office space where Sasha does are, well, not that far from the truth...

In the next book, The Lies Have It, there is a fair bit of action west of Yonge.  Sasha spends part of her investigation in Kensington Market, the Annex, and High Park.  The home that figures prominently in that book is a fictionalized version of the house on Parkside Drive, where I lived in 1987-1989.

4.) In my review of Dead Light District I have noted Sasha walks through her investigations. It is interesting to have a walking investigator. Why did you put Sasha on foot?

Because I don’t drive...well, not exactly.  I’m really bad at driving, so I haven’t been behind the wheel in about a decade.  I try to walk wherever I can, if it’s nice out, I’ll bike. 

I guess, to some extent, Sasha is pretty normal for a lot of young, childless Torontonians in that she uses public transit.  I just did a mental checklist of my close friends, and only about one-third of them own a car, and they seem to only use it on weekends to get out of town.  Driving in the core of the city isn’t necessarily advantageous or quicker.  More than once, I’ve hopped out of a taxi and walked the rest of the way. 

5.) Do you have a favourite place and time of day for writing?

Any time of day or night.  Usually just at my desk on my computer.   Any place is fine for writing, as long as it’s quiet.

6.) Do you set a page or word goal when writing?

I have absolutely no system or routine.  My day job (teaching) has an ever changing schedule, and I am fortunate to have a lot of free time, at times.  I write whenever I’m not busy at work (Reading Week, X-mas vacation, summer, etc.), which means I also stay away from writing for long stretches (marking exams, doing final grades, etc). 

Blood and Groom took about 6 months to write; Dead Light District took 5 months.

Dead Light District by Jill Edmondson

Yesterday I posted my review of Blood and Groom by Toronto author, Jill Edmondson. Tonight I post my review of her second book Dead Light District. Saturday there will be a post of Questions and Answers with Jill. I will end the Jill Edmondson weekend on Sunday with a post on the Questions and Answers with her. I repeat my encouragement from last night to come back tomorrow night for the Questions and Answers. They are as colourful as the author.

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18. – 577.) Dead Light District by Jill Edmondson – Sasha Jackson is back and her second adventure is a much better book. Unlike Blood and Groom Sasha, searching for a missing prostitute, is in a milieu better suited to her tough girl personality. A beautiful Mexican woman, Mary Carmen, has disappeared while on an out call and her madam, Candace, hires Sasha to find out what happened.
            I am learning more about the sex trade in Toronto in every book. In Blood and Groom it was telephone sex while this book examines prostitution in the 21st Century from the grubby streets east of Yonge to a high end bordello. I thought about how Sara Paretsky puts a current social issue as the theme of V.I. Warshawski mysteries. While refusing to accept prostitution as an appropriate profession for women Sasha skirts the implications of her work foray into the sex trade as a phone sex operator.
            As Sasha starts pulling at the threads of information she learns Mary Carmen had been a hooker in Montreal before coming to Toronto. There is reason to fear for Mary Carmen’s safety. Her vicious pimp, Gaston, has come after his property.
            Sasha may be the only big city fictional investigator who does most of her investigating on foot. Sasha stays fit walking uptown, downtown and across town. I could feel the draining combination of July heat and humidity in Toronto’s concrete core as she walked the city.
            Trashily dressed and heavily made up, the remarks of attempted clients on a hot summer night, confirm Sasha has successfully gone undercover as a street call girl.
            With the book in first person narrative by Sasha I found the short first person comments of Mary Carmen made her character come alive. Mary Carmen’s painful past and ongoing desperate decisions are vividly expressed.
            Personally, Sasha enjoys time with girlfriends, Lindsay and Jessica. Looking for love, actually lusting for a man, she shies from renewing her relationship with Mick and finds herself attracted to Derek Armstrong, a well dressed, handsome, sexy lawyer. It was nice that a lawyer has become Sasha’s sex interest. Love may follow.
            The route to the solution could be enhanced but the plotting is more assured. I liked Sasha better in this book. She was wittier and a little less sarcastic while remaining as strong willed and stubborn. Sasha reminds me of Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s series. With the story improvement and the growth of Sasha’s character I am looking to the third in the series. (Apr. 2/11)


Blood and Groom by Jill Edmondson

Recently Toronto author, Jill Edmondson, provided me with copies of her books Blood and Groom and  Dead Light Distric to read and review. Tonight I post the review of Blood and Groom. Tomorrow will be the review of Dead Light District. Saturday will have Questions and Answers with Jill. Sunday will conclude the Jill Edmondson long weekend of posts with a post discussing the Questions and Answers. I encourage all readers to make sure they return for the Questions and Answers. They vividly reflect the author's personality.

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17. – 576.) Blood and Groom by Jill Edmondson – Sasha Jackson is an engaging character with an outsize personality. A newly licenced Toronto private investigator she has a quick and sarcastic tongue. I am confident she swears more than any other female mystery hero. There are few hard boiled female investigators. As she seeks to establish herself Sasha toils part-time in the “slut mines” as a phone sex operator. (It is as sad a use of the phone as I expected.) To relieve stress, the former rock band singer loves to pound the drums in the family home. While fiercely independent Sasha is living with her father and brother.
            Usually involved in basic commercial checks and searches work gets more interesting when Christine Arvisais hires her to find out who killed Gordon Hanes, Christine’s former fiancé. He had broken off their engagement four months before the wedding. It was clever to set the mystery in the wedding industry. I would never have dreamed the marriage business could be so dangerous.
           While cleared by the police Christine wants Sasha to find the killer as she is still viewed by many as the killer. Sasha is the only private investigator she can afford. (I thought about Anthony Bidulka’s first book, Amuse Bouche, where a groom left at the altar by another groom is at the heart of the story.)
            It was a challenge to care about Gordon. Deceased before the start of the book it is more difficult to be interested in a victim who was never a live character.
            Sasha leaps into the investigation poking into Gordon’s life. He was a member of Toronto’s financial elite. The hard edged Sasha does not mix well with the genteel residents of Rosedale who, except for Gordon’s mother, are quite unpleasant people. Christine is a remarkably unlikeable client.
            The plot shift from a single murder to multiple fiancé killings was jarring to me. While plausible I found the solution came in a way that did not tie in well with the rest of the novel.
           While I enjoyed Sasha as a character more than the actual story I hope her roughest edges can be smoothed abit in the second book in the series. It was a good debut for the toughest fictional woman P.I. in Canada. She is actually a rival to Howard Shrier’s character, Jonah Geller, as the toughest P.I. in the nation. (Mar. 26/11)