About Me

My photo
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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

46. – 509.) Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre – The WW II biography of English double agent, Eddie Chapman, is a revealing portrait of actual spying. A successful and colourful criminal Eddie is in jail in Jersey at the time the island is occupied by the Germans. Eddie, seeking a better life and excitement and a way back to England, volunteers to become a German spy. The initial response is to jail him. Eventually the Abwehr decides to train him to be a spy and saboteur and drop him in England. The Germans do not realize the English Secret Service, because of Ultra, is able to decrypt their messages and know a spy is coming. Upon being parachuted into England Eddie promptly turns himself in to the authorities. After convincing them he is willing to be a double agent they start feeding misinformation back to his German handlers. There are challenges for the Secret Service as Eddie is actually a wanted criminal in England. They make the charges go away and proceed with the double cross. Eventually, an act of sabotage is faked and Eddie returns to Germany where he spends considerable time in Norway. Treated as a German hero is awarded the Iron Cross, the only English citizen to receive the award. Eventually, Eddie is dropped again in England and returns to the English Secret Service. Eddie is a charmer. Eddie loves women carrying on multiple relationships. At one point he has the English Secret Service supporting one lover and the Abwehr paying for another. As the war nears its end he is found expendable and cut loose. What was striking is how inept many of the spies, especially the German spies, were in training and ability. Eddie is a great spy though he obtains no major information. Fiction leads us to think of spies penetrating organizations and installations to obtain their deepest secrets. At least in WW II the image is wrong. Fiction also provides few spies who are criminals with a 
casual amorality. Also the immense resources devoted to dealing with one spy were surprising. There were teams on each side devoted to Eddie. Excellent. (Dec. 2/09)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoughts on 600 Books Read since January 1, 2000

On January 1, 2000 I decided to list the books I was reading and make notes about them.

Initially I would write 1-2 sentences about a book. My intention at that time was to keep track of books read rather than review them. I wanted to track how many books and the type of books I was reading each year.

The first book was:

     1.) Scandal at the Savoy by Andrew Rose – The story of 
     the 1923 murder trial of Marie Fahmy. (Jan. 3/00)

As a lawyer interested in real life lawyers and trials as well as legal mysteries it was a good first book. I still remember it had a vivid description of a trial with an undeserved acquittal for a lovely woman accused of killing her foreign husband.

By the end of 2001 it was clear I was reading about a book a week. In a good year I would read about 50 books.

It is a pace I have maintained for 11 ½ years. This year is an especially good year for reading books. I have already read 40 books.

I have read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. The proportion has always been heavily skewed towards fiction. In recent years the percentage of fiction read has climbed. About 80% of the books I currently read are fiction.

Within fiction I have focused on mystery fiction.

By the number of books read for authors I have read Michael Connelly the most with 15 books. Next would be Robert Crais with 13 books. Rounding out the top 3 is P.D. James with 11 books.

About the time I started listing books read I made the decision to read every Saskatchewan based mystery I could find. I have found 27 mysteries. I have read all of them though I do not have reviews on some of the Gail Bowen books as the series started in 1990.

Much of my non-fiction reading has been in history. I have a specific interest in World War II.

During the years I have read about 235 different authors of fiction and 115 authors of non-fiction.

P.D. James and Mark Zuehlke are the two authors I have read who write both fiction and non-fiction.

About 2003 I decided I wanted to remember more than titles and the theme of a book. I started writing reviews and occasionally wrote to authors. In the reviews I have tried to describe the books, provide an opinion on the book and reflect on the book in some way.

The milestone books, by number, have been:

1.) 100 - Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

2.) 200 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

3.) 300 – Rain Storm by Barry Eisler

4.) 400 – Telling Lies About Hitler­ by Richard J. Evans

5.) 500 - A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

Starting the blog has opened my mind to world fiction. Until reading other bloggers I had not thought about how much my reading of mysteries was centered on North America. I am confident the quality of my reading has improved by looking for books from different parts of the world.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Deadly Appearances by Gail Bowen

40. - 600.) Deadly Appearances by Gail Bowen – For the 600th book I have read since January 1, 2000 I chose a Saskatchewan mystery, the first Joanne Kilbourn book published 21 years ago.

The book commences with a flourish. Gail’s first victim, Andy Boychuk, is a thinly disguised former Ukrainian Saskatchewan Premier. At a political picnic on a hot Saskatchewan summer day Andy is about to speak when he collapses on the platform. He has been poisoned by potassium cyanide.

(Life is filled with coincidences. Out of the 600 books read I think two have involved killings by potassium cyanide with both read within a month. Death at La Fenice was my 596th book. Adding to the coincidence it was written a few years apart about 20 years ago.)

Herself a recent grieving widow, Joanne does her best to help Andy’s widow, Eve, cope with her husband’s death. It is not easy dealing with the solitary Eve who has resolutely stayed deep in the background during her husband’s lengthy political career.

Drawing on her experiences in Saskatchewan politics on behalf of the New Democratic Party Gail’s story features the politicians and families of our social democratic party in the mystery. (The victim is the only real politician I recognized in the book.) Saskatchewan has long had a prominent left of center party sometimes veering to socialism while at other times near the middle of the political spectrum.

Bowen cleverly gives Joanne the opportunity to delve into Boychuk’s past life by having Joanne decide to write a biography of the deceased party leader. Who can resist questions from a friendly biographer?

As she searches into his life she uncovers secrets about Boychuk. All of us have secrets. Most of us are glad no one will probe deeply into our lives. Her image of her friend is changed.

Within her own family Joanne is also coping with change. Her daughter, Mieka, has finished high school and is leaving home to attend university. While glad her sons, Peter and Angus, remain at home it is hard for Joanne to see her oldest start a new life. Joanne struggles with Mieka choosing to spend Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family rather than going with Joanne to visit family friends.

Joanne is an unusual sleuth in that she maintains a normal family life with its pains and pleasures while solving a mystery. It is almost unique in that Joanne is not pursuing the killer. She is seeking information for her biography rather than evidence to find the murderer.

The pace and tension rise steadily through the book. As the end approaches I found myself racing through the pages.

I do not often re-read books. Going back to read again the first Joanne Kilbourn mystery was to fall in love again with a series. After a dozen books it was wonderful to discover the series again. Gail creates interesting complex characters. It was a wonderful book to mark 600 books. Great!

The book will also count as my second book in the 5th Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John Mutford at the Book Mine Set blog. I have now reached the Grand Lake level (2 of 13) (July 25/11)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly

45. – 508.) Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch takes on the investigation of the murder of a Chinese liquor store owner in a black neighbourhood. The investigation swiftly focuses on a tong enforcer who would have been at the store around the time of the killing. After arresting the enforcer, Chang, Harry receives a video from Hong Kong showing his daughter, Maddie, has been kidnapped. With no means of getting any answers from Chang or the tong Harry flies to Hong Kong where he meets his ex-lover, Eleanor Wish, and they pursue leads on where Maddie is being held. It was amazing how Harry is able to get information from a window reflection on the video through complex technical enhancements. The hunt for his daughter is violent and shocking. As he pursued the kidnappers I kept wondering why a tong would risk the attention that would descend upon them by kidnapping the daughter of a police officer to gain the release of a low level member. In the end Connelly, as he always does in his books brings together the threads and provides a realistic solution. The entry of Maddie into Harry’s life provides a new series of personal development as he will have to balance a family with work. It will be intriguing how a teenage daughter will be fitted into his life. No woman has sustained a long term relationship with the cop obsessed with his work. I am reminded of the mysteries of Gail Bowen and Anthony Bidulka where family members are active participants in the stories. I enjoyed the book but the standard of several earlier works was higher. Hardcover. (Nov. 23/09)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Death Turns the Tables by John Dickson Carr

34. - 593.) Death Turns the Tables by John Dickson Carr (1941) – Justice Horace Ireton is a judge of a style that still existed when I graduated from law in 1975. Dry to the point of bloodless he prides himself on being logical and uninfluenced by emotion. While being precise and dispassionate are good qualities in a judge they become flaws when the judge is arid of feeling.

Justice Ireton appears to lack all emotion beyond a cruel sense of humour of playing cat and mouse with those convicted in his court. While using words sparingly he will lead them to believe a particular sentence is about to be imposed and then abruptly shift to a different punishment.

He is about as far in personality from the passionate Rusty Sabich of Scott Turow’s books as possible.

As I read the book I realized how rare it is to read about a judge being the potential killer. I do not know why more crime authors have not considered judges for suspects. They are very suitable candidates.

Justice Ireton is just as coolly analytical in family relationships. When his 21 year old daughter, Connie, introduces an obviously Italian fiancé, Anthony Morell (originally Morelli) the judge sizes up the foreigner. Certain of his ability to judge character Justice Ireton swiftly concludes Morell is a suitor intent on gaining financial advantage from the marriage. He immediately strikes a bargain with Morell. He will pay the Italian to go away. Unfortunately, he does not have the money to pay Morell.

When Morell is found dead in Justice Ireton’s home on the seashore, with the Judge holding the handgun that fired the fatal bullet, his prospects are grim. Yet why would the judge kill a man in his own home and sit there with the gun in hand?

With very British deference to a higher class Inspector Graham does not immediately arrest the judge. He treats Justice Ireton far more circumspectly than he would a young unemployed man found in similar circumstances.

Aiding the police is Dr. Gideon Fell, a huge man who moves ponderously through the book. I was reminded of Nero Wolfe both in size and style. Fell solves mysteries by thought rather than action. He is the analytical equal of Justice Ireton while retaining emotions.
Young barrister, Fred Barlow, seeks to have the suspicion diverted from Justice Ireton.

I appreciated a mystery where the characters are bright and articulate. It reads well 70 years after it was written. The end was a surprise to me.

I wonder if Fell could be a lead character in this era. Few authors appear willing to have their protagonist be a fat man. Almost all contemporary primary characters are fit slender attractive men and women.

It was interesting to see the clear prejudice in upper British society of that era against South Europeans. Each generation has their own biases.

I am going to look up more of Carr’s mysteries. Excellent. (June 26/11)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Forgotten Soldiers by Brian Moynahan

48. – 511.) Forgotten Soldiers by Brian Moynahan – The actions of individual soldiers which were pivotal in a battle or a campaign or even a war. Most war books deal with the actions and decisions of generals and civilian commanders. Moynahan, in vivid detail, portrays incredibly brave and skilful warriors making all the difference. The stories confirm the importance of sergeants and lieutenants – leaders of the front lines. Three 20th Century war stories illustrate the principle:

1.) German invasion of France in May of 1940 - Sturmpionier Sergeant Walter Rubarth was in the vanguard of the German army which had crashed through the Ardennes and looked to cross the Meuse at Sedan and break out. The first attempts to cross the river are unsuccessful. Time is critical as the French are bound to reinforce the area. Rubarth’s small boat is the only one to get across the river. With a squad he clears out French pillboxes and creates a bridgehead which the German army exploits to break out;

2.) Stalingrad – With the Red Army’s backs to the Volga, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and a small unit occupy No. 61 Penzenskaya Street. Preventing a German line of advance Pavlov holds the “White House” against constant German attacks, day and night, for 58 days. The Germans see them as “not men, but cast-iron creatures”; and,
3.) Champagne Front in July of 1918 – With the Frency army uncertain when the Germans will launch an offensive Sergeant Joseph Darnand, with a small raiding party, is sent to infiltrate the German lines and bring back prisoners and intelligence. Penetrating past the first two German lines he returns with 24 prisoners and documentation showing the timing of the German attack. The Frency armies are withdrawn 4 kilometres and the intense German barrage falls upon empty trenches and what terms out to be the last major German offensive fails.

I was reminded of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell in which major results can come from small actions at the right moment. The stories demonstrate why successful armies have large numbers of effective sergeants and lieutenants. When the bullets are flying armies are led by sergeants not generals. Excellent. (Dec. 10/09)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crime Fiction on a EuroPass Meme

I enjoyed participating in Kerrie Smith’s Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme at her blog Mysteries in Paradise so much I have signed up for her next meme, Crime Fiction on a EuroPass.

Starting Monday, August 1 the EuroPass Express starts out in England and will spend the next 12 weeks weaving up and down and across the continent.

Kerrie has set out the stops:

1. Monday 1 August England – this is our starting point, and as with all the countries we visit, you can choose exactly where your post takes us.

2. Monday, 8 August Spain/Portugal

3. Monday, 15 August France

4. Monday, 22 August Holland / Belgium

5. Monday, 29 August Denmark

6. Monday, 5 September Germany

7. Monday, 12 September Austria

8. Monday, 19 September Switzerland

9. Monday, 26 September The Czech Republic

10. Monday, 3 October Italy

11. Monday, 10 October Greece

12. Monday, 17 October Turkey

Each week participants will be invited to post:

1. A book review (create a new one or revive and old one); or

2. An author profile; or,

3. A reading syllabus for crime fiction either set in this country, or written by authors from this country

I have posts for several of the countries.

Some will be difficult. Holland / Belgium will be a challenge. At the present time I have no ideas for Austria and the Czech Republic.

Jose Ignacio at his blog, The Game’s Afoot, already has posts planned or ideas in place for every stop.

I hope there will be lots of participants. The more aboard the better the ride.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Ordinary Decent Criminal by by Michael Van Rooy

Today's post will also be my first book in The Canadian Book Challenge hosted by John Mutford at his blog, The Book Mine Set. By reading this book I have reached the first level being MacLures Pond.


38. - 597.) An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy – Sam Parker is an average man. When he was Monty Haaviko he was a career criminal and addict. He has been an O.D.C. Having served his time Sam has moved to Winnipeg with his lovely wife, Claire, and their 10 month old son, Frederick. He is ready to lead a straight life.

In a dramatic, even shocking opening, Sam kills three young men who have broken into his home. His swift sure actions reflect a man long used to violence.

The Winnipeg police are not sympathetic to the home renter defending his family against armed home invaders. Their violence against Sam to gain a confession of murder is powerfully written. I can only hope such beatings do not happen in real life. (I did have a case recently where the accused’s confession was ruled inadmissible when the questioning officer did not turn on the audio/visual system, did not make notes of the conversation and did not get the accused to sign the statement. There was no violence in the interview.)

Sam, with the aid of his lawyer, Thompson, skillfully challenges the police.

Back in the neighbourhood life is a challenge for the ex-con. Few are willing to have anything to do with the lifetime loser. Despite the obstacles Sam is determined to stay straight. For the first time in his life he is putting the interests of his wife and child ahead of his personal desires. A day of honest work with the evening at home with his family is his modest goal.

Facing continuing harassment Sam takes action to secure a new future. He will do what is necessary.

The book contains innovative descriptions of how to steal and defraud and hurt people. Monty had learned a lot in his 32 years about crime. It is hard boiled fiction with a character seeking to change in a world that refuses to believe he has changed.

It is a remarkable book. It was with great sadness that I read Van Rooy had died earlier this year from a heart attack at 42 while on a book tour. Reading that he had served almost 2 years in jail for armed robbery while a young man helped explain his vivid descriptions of incarceration. (He maintained he was not guilty and had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.) The world has lost an excellent writer of crime fiction. (July 12/11)

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly

33. - 592.) The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly – The recession has driven Mickey Haller into foreclosure defence. A foreseeable consequence of the faltering California economy is the dearth of criminal defendants able to pay for their defence.

            Haller returns to criminal defence when one of his foreclosure clients, Lisa Tramell, is accused of murdering the bank official, Mitchell Bondurant, in charge of proceeding with the foreclosure of her home. There is no problem with motive. Her strident protests, as head of FLAG – Foreclosure Litigants Against Greed, had resulted in a restraining order keeping her away from the front entrance of the bank. Bondurant is hammered to death in the garage where he parks each morning.

            Unlike most fictional lawyers Haller immediately addresses how he is to be paid. Unlike non-Los Angeles fictional lawyers he has the entertainment option. He can pursue a deal in the film industry for the story of defending Lisa.

            Complicating the arrangements is low level Hollywood producer, Herb Dahl, who has paid the $200,000 bond to get Lisa released from custody and wants the rights to the story. Haller is forced into an uneasy relationship with Dahl.

            With both the prosecution and the defence interested in an early trial the pace of the proceedings are swift.

            Andrea Freeman is chosen to prosecute the case. A very determined prosecutor she grudgingly provides the minimum in disclosure of the evidence.

            Haller is filled with energy being back in action with a prominent newsworthy case. Aiding him are a new associate, Jennifer “Bullocks” Aronson, his faithful secretary, Lorna Taylor, his skilled investigator, Dennis “Cisco” Wojciechowski, and his steady driver, Rojas.

            Connelly is the best non-lawyer writer at describing trial action. He knows the nuances of courtroom behaviour and the law. Whether from his own research or expert assistance his lawyers rarely misstep from real life.

            The State has a good but not perfect case. There is strong circumstantial evidence against Lisa. As with every trial lawyer, Haller sets out to find the weaknesses and inconsistencies in the State’s case. Between Haller’s courtroom skills and Cisco’s effective investigations they find and execute a reasonably logical defence. It involves the risky plan of providing an actual, rather than rhetorical, alternative killer.

            Within the trial Haller makes effective use of a mannequin. Demonstrative evidence is far more powerful than the words of the average witness. It must been over 30 years ago when I read of Melvin Belli first using the term demonstrative evidence. Such evidence livens a trial. I had a trial in which my older son was called to be one of the participants in a demonstration to establish a jacket could not be pulled over my client’s head. It was crucial to the defence.

            Connelly creates an excellent trial with an effective combination of planned and reactive strategies. Each lawyer prepares well but each is forced into quick decisions during the trial.

            In his personal life Haller loves his daughter, Hayley, and willingly makes the time needed to see her each week. Their weekly pancake supper date where each works was touching. As always with adults his relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie “McFierce”, is more complex and gets progressively more complicated.

            The Lincoln lawyer is changing. An office is rented for the trial and Haller finds himself comfortable in a regular office. Will he maintain his primary office in the back seat of his Lincolns or be tempted to return to a regular physical office?

                        Harry Bosch is not a character in the book. I think it was a better book without him. I did not think it went well when Bosch and Haller shared the spotlight in The Reversal.

            Connelly is such a smooth and polished writer. The story just flows irresistibly to the end. I enjoyed everything about the book but the ending. As I cannot explain my reasoning without spoiling I will refrain from an explanation. It reflected an undercurrent that had been present throughout the book. Excellent.

            I did not understand the perfection of the title until near the end of the trial. (June 25/11).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Favourite Posts from the Alphabet in Crime Fiction

Yesterday I discussed the types of posts I made from “H” to “Z” in the Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme of Kerrie Smith from Mysteries in Paradise. Today I am discussing my top five posts from the 21 I posted.

First is my post “Who is Inger Ash Wolfe?” for the letter “W”. The Canadian author has had a pair of very successful mysteries set in rural Ontario that feature 61 year old detective inspector Hazel Micallef. The post delved into the identity of the author. I got to write about a real life mystery. Several names have been put forward for the actual identity of Wolfe but there is no positive identification. I invited readers to add information but no one came forward to solve the mystery.

Second is my profile of the Australian author, Arthur Upfield, for “U”. Until early this year I had never heard of Upfield and his character Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. During my research I came across a doctoral thesis that was a biography of Upfield. The author spent several years in the wild country of Australia included a period patrolling the longest fence in the world. I have now read two in the series and expect to read more as I find them in used bookstores.

Third is my review of The Joining of Dingo Radish by Rob Harasmychuk for “H”. I appreciated the chance to introduce a Saskatchewan mystery to the followers of the meme. It is an interesting book that is well connected with rural Saskatchewan.

Fourth is my review of The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly for “L”. I had the chance to post my review of the debut of an outstanding legal mystery character in Mickey Haller. Connelly was already one of my favourite authors and when he started a new series with a criminal defence lawyer he is near or at the top. It was a very clever concept to have a lawyer practising law out of his Lincoln cars. Haller reflects the reality of criminal law with defence lawyers continually struggling to get paid from clients for whom there is no possibility of collecting accounts whether the trial is lost or won.

Fifth is my profile of Qui Xiaolong for “X”. The Chinese born author is a poet as much as a mystery author. He has had an interesting life. He translated T.S. Eliot while in China. He stayed in America because of fears for his safety after Tiananmen Square. I was intrigued by his ability to work quotations of Chinese poetry into his mysteries. The use of poetry creates a unique atmosphere in the books. At the same time his plots reflect the extremely complex web of personal relationships in Chinese society.

I hope there will be another Alphabet in Crime Fiction. I learned a lot from fellow bloggers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reviewing Posts for the Alphabet in Crime Fiction Meme

For the past 19 weeks I have participated in the Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise putting up 21 posts.

For almost 5 months it became a part of my weekend to reflect on what post I would make with regard to the letter of the week. I looked forward to making my alphabet post on Sunday or Monday.

When I started I concentrated on books I had read. Out of the 21 posts 14 were reviews of specific books. Of the remaining 7 posts there were 6 posts of author profiles. The other post was an entry on “Who is Inger Wolfe?” delving into the mystery on the actual identity of the Canadian writer.

I had not realized how North American dominant my reading is until I examined the posts. Fully 2/3 of my posts related to North American books and authors. The U.S. led the way with 9 posts. (If I had counted Qui Xiaolong as American, instead of Chinese, because he moved to the U.S. and wrote his books there it would have almost been 2/3 for the U.S. alone.) I did have 5 posts concerning Canadian books and writers.

I had 2 posts from Saskatchewan which is at the core of my blog. They were “H” is for TheJoining of Dingo Radish by Rob Harasymchuk and “M” is for SilenceInvites the Dead by Scott Gregory Miller.

I had hoped to highlight a trio of Saskatchewan mystery authors but their names all began with “B” and I joined the meme at “H”! Even their titles did not usually fit the last 19 letters of the alphabet. They are Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen and Nelson Brunanski. I am well prepared for “B” in a future alphabet meme.

I never exactly knew which posts were most likely to draw comments. I did quickly realize that if I posted a profile of an author it would usually draw more attention than a book review. The post which drew the most comments was “J” is for White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones. It was read during the course of the alphabet by Kerrie.

The only time I posted more than once for a week was for “X”. After posting a profile of Qui Xiaolong, at the invitation of Kerrie, I posted a pair of book reviews from his series on Inspector Chen. They were Death of a Red Heroine and ACase of Two Cities.

I enjoyed my trip through most of the alphabet and will discuss tomorrow my favourite posts from the 21 I put up on the blog.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Z" is for Mark Zuehlke

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction has run out of letters arriving at “Z” this week. I have appreciated Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, hosting the community meme. It has been a fun journey through the alphabet from “H” to “Z” for me. I encourage all readers to take a trip to see the contributions this week and the past 25 weeks. There is an amazing collection of authors and book reviews and articles on the letter of the week. For my “Z” contribution I have chosen to post about author Mark Zuehlke from Canada.


Mark is a prolific Canadian author resident in Victoria, in British Columbia. His writing career combines an unusual combination of books. His primary area has been writing Canadian military histories focused on World War II. At the same time he has published a series of three mysteries featuring coroner Elias McCann who resides in Tofino on the West coast of Vancouver Island. It is a beautiful isolated area at the edge of Canada.

I read the first mystery in the series, Hands Like Clouds, in which McCann works to solve the death of an ecological protester during the controversy of logging in the Clayoquot Sound area. In real life there have been major issues over how much more logging should be done in the relatively few areas of British Columbia not heavily logged already. I found Mark had vivid characterizations and created a decent plot. I would buy him again.

For anyone interested in military histories I can certainly recommend his non-fiction works. He writes in an engaging populist style covering battles and campaigns of the Canadian military.

He has a website located at http://www.zuehlke.ca/.

I met Mark at an author event in Melfort when we still had a bookstore. He has an engaging personality and is well worth going to see if he is at an event in your area. He readily answered all questions and was willing to discuss issues raised by his books. Because of the concentration of books in military history his author appearances are likely to be publicized as military history events.

His website indicates a 4th book in the McCann series is being written.

A reader looking for a contemporary mystery set in rugged country will enjoy Mark.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Questions and Answers with Anthony Bidulka

Recently I exchanged emails with Anthony Bidulka, the Saskatchewan author of the Russell Quant mystery series. I asked him a few questions about writing mysteries and he graciously responded. The questions and answers are:

1.) P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction talks about traditional rules for crime fiction as defined by mystery writer, Monsignor Ronald Knox, from the Golden Age between the World Wars:

“The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation. No Chinaman must figure in the story. No accident must help the detective, nor is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The
stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly. less intelligent than the average reader and his thoughts should not be concealed. And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been dully prepared for them.”

Do you accept these rules or any other rules in writing your mysteries?

Heh heh, I love this. We've come a long way, baby! That being said, I suppose there are some granules of truth amongst these rules. This question comes back to whether or not we beleive mysteries (and other genre fiction) are written by formula. Some say that is why genre fiction is not accepted as "literary". I tend to subscribe to the notion that mysteries are written on skeletal frames that at the outset may appear formulaic,but then all rules are joyously tossed away into the wind. All one has to do is walk into a library or bookstore and pull four or five random mystery novels off the shelf to get just a small sniff of the many wild and wonderful and wacky and wise directions crime writers have prgressed into today. When I set out to write a book, I don't think of any rules, other than to write as well as I can, enjoy the process, and do my best to create a fine piece of entertainment that is true to me as a writer.

2.) In the same book Baroness James talks about a setting providing the inspiration for a mystery. What inspires you to start a plot?

This is very much a chicken-and-egg question for me. Setting plays a very important part in my books. Each Quant book takes place in part in Saskatchewan, and in part in a foreign location. In terms of plot and setting, all I can say is that I think it is a more organic process than simply deciding on one to drive the other. Although I will most often say that plot is king - the story has to be good - the strongest story does not survive if setting is no good. They must fit together. A recent example is when I was travelling in the Middle East in 2008. I was writing the sixth Russell Quant book at the time. It would seem to make sense that I would have used Arabia as my setting. But my experience there simply did not fit with the story I wanted to tell, (which is probably the most romantic of the Quant books.) I used Hawaii instead. A short time later, I wrote a Quant book called Date With a Sheesha which fit perfectly with an Arabian setting.

3.) Rex Stout would work out a Nero Wolfe mystery in his head and then sit down and type it and send it, without revisions, to be published. How long does it take you to plot and then to write a Russell Quant mystery? How many revisions does it usually take you?

Unlike Mr. Stout, I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my drafts. I must personally feel that a manuscript is as perfect as I can get it before I submit it to my editor. Then, she tells me all the reasons why it still isn't perfect at all! We move on from there.

The number of drafts for a book differs depending on the project and what my writing process has been like. For instance, if my writing has been interrupted a great deal by book touring or other travels or personal pursuits, the number of drafts goes up. I have had as many as ten drafts and as few as two.

4.) In Gail Bowen’s last book two of the names of the characters were the same as people I know in Saskatchewan and I kept thinking of them when I read the book. Where do you look for names of characters?

Gail has very generously used the naming of her characters for good - by auctioning off the naming of a character for charity. Which may be why you've recognized a name or two. I have also done this throughout the years. I also have what I refer to as a name jar on my desk. So whenever I hear or see a name that I really like, I will write it down on a slip of paper and put it in the jar. If I'm ever at a loss for a good name, I'll go over the slips and perhaps choose one in that way. Usually, though, I must say, as I am conceptualizing a character, oftentimes a name simply pops into my head. Usually it sticks. Sometimes it does not, and the naming 'error' will bug me, even in my sleep, until I change it. Two of the subsidiary characters in the Quant series, Alberta Lougheed and Beverly Chaney actually ended up switching names right before the first book came out. It probably means little to most readers, but I'm so glad I made the change. They fit now.

5.) How did you come up with the name of Russell Quant? (The only Quant I am familiar with is Mary Quant famous for the mini skirt. Russell and the mini skirt are an intriguing combination.)

It really was about wanting a strong name with few syllables. Kind of like James Bond. Boom. Boom. Russell Quant - boom, boom, boom. Nice , strong, to the point, but not too precious or overdone. I've always liked the name Russell, and Quant came out by trial and error.

I look forward to Russell’s next adventure. Surely one of these days he is going to make a trip to Church Street in Toronto.

You never know!

Date with a Sheesha by Anthony Bidulka

16. - 529.) Date with a Sheesha by Anthony Bidulka – Russell Quant starts again at “The Dief” (Saskatoon Airport) where he has been mysteriously summoned to view the death of Neil Gupta. Pranav Gupta hires Russell to determine why his son died in Dubai where he had been buying carpets and lecturing on carpets. Pranav suspects Neil was killed because he was gay. Russell’s love of adventure and a hefty fee override his unease at heading to the gay unfriendly Middle East. Russell is briefly, too briefly, torn over leaving his lover Ethan in Saskatoon. A pragmatic man, Pranav, provides Russell with a cover story, Neil’s replacement from the university, which will also enable the completion of Neil’s mission. To further aid Russell there is Hema, a lovely, if prickly, travel companion. (Getting ready Russell bustles around Saskatoon in his new vehicle, a Mazda 5 minivan. I chuckled at Russell’s misgivings about chosing  comfort – “the Babamobile” - over style for his personal vehicle. I laughed aloud for the first time in reading in a long time when he discovers his Ukrainian mother has purchased the same model.) Soon Russell and Hema are in Dubai experiencing the amazing sights and buildings built to be spectacular. Well aware of the dangers of being openly gay Russell discreetly seeks information. As he probes the carpet world and gay world of Dubai Russell hears rumours Neil has been seeking the Zinko, an ancient carpet inlaid with precious stones forming a treasure map to a cache of jewels. The map was the only aspect of the plot that was not credible. There was no explanation on why those in possession of such a carpet over the past centuries would not have sought out the cache. A wonderful carpet with jewels would have been sufficient. Later, back home another very clever Saskatchewan means of murder is attempted of Russell. In the series Anthony has come up with more Saskatchewan methods of murder than I imagined possible in our peaceful province. As always the dialogue is brisk and witty. The relationships between the characters are genuine. An excellent book. (Apr. 18/10)

Aloha, Candy Hearts by Anthony Bidulka

30. - 493.) Aloha, Candy Hearts by Anthony Bidulka – As in Amuse Bouche marriage is at the core of the plot. Russell is blind sided by an unexpected proposal from long distance lover, Alex Canyon, in Hawaii. Russell accepts even though he is ambivalent about marrying Alex. On his arrival back in Saskatoon flight companion, Walter Angel, is murdered at the airport. Russell finds that Angel has surreptitiously slipped him a crude treasure map of Saskatoon inscribed with cryptic poetic clues that Angel was bringing back to Saskatoon. With Angel the head archivist at the University of Saskatchewan it is no surprise the clues are historically based. To unravel them requires an extensive knowledge of Saskatoon history. I learned bits of Saskatoon lore from the story. Who knew archivists were treasure hunters with secrets worthy of murder? As Russell delves into the clues his personal life is in turmoil. He finds himself drawn to nursing home owner, Ethan Ash, who is already in a relationship. At the same time Russell’s good friends, Anthony and Jared, are getting ready for a spectacular wedding. (I was reminded of Doug and Greg’s fabulous wedding in Toronto last year which was a major social event in Toronto in 2008.) Deciphering the clues amidst the wedding preparations Russell is attacked by an unknown assailant driving a white Ford F-150 truck. Why do people keep trying to kill Russell with farm trucks? Is the farm truck becoming a signature Saskatchewan murder weapon? As the plot climaxes there is little doubt as to the killer’s identity. I wish there had another one or two plausible suspects. It was great to have Russell’s mother, Kay, with her trademark hearty Ukranian cooking back in the story and it is interesting to meet his hard living sister, Joanne. (She was certainly not patterned after Fran.) I love Russell solving a mystery back in Saskatchewan. I keep waiting for him to solve a mystery in rural Saskatchewan or is it too dangerous for Russell? There are a lot more farm trucks in the country than in town. Excellent. (Aug. 3/09)