About Me

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong – In the second Chief Inspector Chen Cao mystery the Inspector starts his connections with America.

The book opens with the start of an investigation into the death by axe of a man whose body is found in the Bund Park in Shanghai. Before he can proceed Chen is abruptly summoned by Party Secretary Li and assigned to find Wen, the wife of an important witness in an American prosecution of the leader of a major human smuggling ring. She has disappeared from her home in Fujian. The Communist Chinese government of the early 1990’s, in a rare display of co-operation with the United States, has undertaken to find her and ensure she travels to America.

Chen is directed to work with U.S. Marshall, Catherine Rohn, in finding Wen and keeping her safe until she can fly out of China.

Chen would prefer to investigate the apparent triad murder in the Park but accepts it is his duty to undertake the new assignment. Beyond his swiftly rising status within the police his English language skills make him a logical liaison for Rohn. She has also gained the assignment partly because of her language proficiency. She speaks Chinese fluently.

While ostensibly given wide authority to conduct the investigation, Chen is further directed to keep Rohn occupied in Shanghai. Clearly the Party does not want Rohn roaming Shanghai seeking information on her own.

Needing to know why Wen has disappeared Chen dispatches his colleague and friend, Yu, to Fujian. Chen has concerns over the efforts of the local police.

Wen is a resident of Fujian because of the consequences of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As a teenager she was sent to the countryside to work with the peasants and be re-educated. There is a striking poem within the book about her when she was a beautiful teenager departing from the Shanghai train station. In the poem she is performing the only acceptable dance of the era, a loyal character dance. The poem's author remembers:

    .... Her hair streamed
    into the dark eye of the sun.
    A leap, her skirt
    like a blossom, and the heart
    jumped out of her hand, fluttering
   like a flushed pheasant. A slip -
   I rushed to its rescue, when she
   caught it - a finishing touch
   to her performance. The people
   roared. I froze. She took my hand,
   waving, our fingers branching
   into each other, as if my blunder
   were a much rehearsed act, as if
   the curtain fell on the world
   in a peice of white paper
   to set off the red heart, in which
   I was the boy, she, the girl.


Life was harsh for Wen in the country. Various circumstances, including marriage, keep her in Fujian after the end of the Revolution. After two decades her beauty has faded and she endures from day to day.

As Chen expected Yu soon finds the Fujian police have made but perfunctory efforts to find Wen. Yu determines she received a phone call in the village from her husband in America warning her to flee. The pregnant Wen leaves the village.

Both Chen and Rohn have concerns about the security of their police organizations.

Chen, while recognizing there are international consequences if Wen is not found, must tread delicately. Triads are involved. Their influence has penetrated throughout the restaurants and clubs of Shanghai and is reaching into official China.

Chen uses past connections and establishes new links to gain information. Rohn occasionally provides unexpected insights. (They have an unusual relationship by Western fiction standards. They do not sleep together immediately after meeting.)

At the same time Chen quietly looks for information related to the Park murder.

The mystery is an insightful journey through a booming Chinese economy filled with new capitalists but also full of traditions. Chen and Rohn face dangers, sometimes more subtle than in the West, as they move forward.

Chen often quotes Chinese sayings and poetry. They add imagery uncommon in crime literature. Considering the transitory nature of our lives, he quotes a poet:

     Life is like the footprint left by a solitary crane in the snow,
     visible only for one moment, and then gone.

Xiaolong’s talents as a poet as well as a writer of a prose infuse the book with rhythmic grace. I look forward to reading the next in the series. (Oct. 22/12) 

****

This will be my second post for the letter "X" in the 2012 Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"X" is for Qiu Xiaolong Again

For “X” in the 2012 Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise I am returning to Qiu Xiaolong. Instead of trying to add to my previous profile I wrote to him about one of the best parts of his mysteries, the inclusion of poetry. They add a dimension found in few mysteries. His sleuth, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, is both an accomplished police officer and a superb poet. Some of the inspector’s poetry is part of the series.

My email to Qiu with my questions and his answers in bold, for which I am most appreciative are:

Qiu

I am a book blogger from Saskatchewan in Canada. At my blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, I focus on mysteries. For the past 23 weeks I have been participating in the 2012 Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her Mysteries in Paradise blog. Each week I have posted a profile of a different author whose surname began with the letter of the week. For next week I am putting up a profile of yourself for the letter “X”. Last year I had also posted a profile of yourself.

I have read 3 of the books in the Chief Inspector Chen Cao series and enjoyed them.

For this year’s profile I was hoping I might include answers from you to a few questions.

The questions are:

1.) Beyond Inspector Chen Cao I am aware of a couple of further mystery series where poetry was a significant part of the books. They are the mysteries of P.D. James featuring Adam Dagleish and the Canadian series of Louise Penny mainly set in the fictional village of Three Pines which has a resident poet, Ruth Lardo. I know you are a poet but wondered if any existing mystery sleuth or prominent character in a mystery series helped inspire you to make the Inspector a poet?

A: Adam Dagleish is known by others as a published poet, but he does not write poems in the books of P.D. James. So you may say while initially inspired by him, I made one step further by having him write poems in the midst of investigations. In the tradition of classical Chinese novels (not necessarily mysteries), however, it's common for characters to write poems in the development of the stories. For me, that may have been another source of influence.

2.) I find it rare to know someone in North America who can quote poetry. Is the Inspector an exception in China or is it common for people to quote poetry?

A: It' used to be very common in China, but not so nowadays. Still, you may still quite often find people quoting poetry. For example, the current Premier Wen is known for his passion for poetry quoting in speeches or press conferences. Quoting poems out of the context could be difficult for the interpreter to translate, and for the journalists to grasp, so people sometimes ask the Premier about the possible quotes beforehand, and discuss about them afterward.

3.) Most of the poetry quoted is from distant times in China’s history. The books refer to the upheavals in Chinese life, including the arts, from the Cultural Revolution. Was there poetry written in that difficult time that may find its way into the series?

A: That's a good question. But for years after 1949, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, poems as well as other literary works were supposed to serve politics, in the interests of the Communist Party. So most of the poems written during that period were more like rhymed political slogans. A very small number of them are of course different, so they may still find their into the series.

4.) In your books I occasionally feel there is a rhythm to the words that reminds me of poetry. Do you attempt to have a rhythm to your words in prose?

A: It's possible. But most of the time subconscious, I think. Recently, there's a photography and poetry entitled DISAPPEARING SHANGHAI, (with pictures by Howard French, poems by me), and the poems are written from Inspector Chen's persona and perspective.

5.) Your books have rich complex plots with readers required to consider layers of meaning in the actions and words of the characters. Poetry has subtlety in image and meaning. Do you think being poet has aided you to write better mysteries?

A: Personally. I think so. Inspector Chen being a poet also helps him approach the investigation with an alternative perspective, not merely in terms of whodunit.

Thank you for considering my questions.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Regards.

Bill Selnes

Thank you very much for your mail. I appreciate your interests in my books.
****
I will be adding another post to the meme this week as my next post will be a review of Qiu Xiaolong’s book, A Loyal Character Dancer.

 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Who is a Canadian Author?

In a comment on my last post concerning the pressure put on Canadian authors to set books in the United States TracyK said:

But if a Canadian author writes a good series not set in Canada, I can't ignore that (such as Alan Bradley). Does Peter Robinson count as a Canadian author?

To answer the question I started by looking up the submission criteria for the 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada. They state:

First publication (includes print, electronic/e-book, or self-published), whether in English or French, in the preceding year (2012) by a Canadian citizen regardless of place of residence, or by a writer, regardless of nationality, who has been granted Permanent Resident status in Canada.

Robinson was born in England and, after getting his B.A. in English Literature at Leeds University, he came to Canada in 1974 to study creative writing with Joyce Carol Oates at the University of Windsor. After earning an M.A. at Windsor and a Ph.D. at York University in Toronto he returned briefly to England. Not finding work he came back to Canada. He currently splits the year between Canada and England. I am not sure whether he is a Canadian citizen or has Permanent Resident status.

As Saskatchewan mysteries are at the core of my blog I looked up the Saskatchewan Book Awards for their criteria:

To be eligible for a Saskatchewan Book Award, authors must have resided in Saskatchewan for the twelve months immediately prior to the date of publication, or for four of the last five full calendar years.

Of the three most prominent Saskatchewan set mystery series two of the three authors, Gail Bowen and Anthony Bidulka, reside in Saskatchewan while the third, Nelson Brunanski lives in Victoria, British Columbia. (Nelson did grow up in Saskatchewan.) Of the trio only Gail and Anthony are eligible for the Saskatchewan Book Awards.

Personally, I have chosen to consider a Saskatchewan mystery any book set in Saskatchewan without regard to the residence or nationality of the author. That personal criteria means Prairie Hardball written by Toronto author, Alison Gordon, is a Saskatchewan mystery.

Perversely, I have set the standard for my page, Rest of Canada, to use the Arthur Ellis criteria for authors so that it does not matter whether their mysteries are set in Canada. While I prefer mysteries by Canadian authors to be set in Canada I decided I would include books set outside Canada on the principle authors retain their nationality no matter where they set their books.

I set up the sub-category of Rest of the World for those authors. Currently, Peter Robinson with a book in England and Linwood Barclay with books set in the United States fit within this group.

I consider setting your own arbitrary rules defining parts of your blog the right of a blogger.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Publisher Pressure to Put Mysteries in America

An exchange of comments on my review of No Time to Say Goodbye by Linwood Barclay and a subsequent comment by blogger, Maxine Clarke, regretted the author’s decision to set all of his mysteries in the United States when he is a Canadian writer.

The comments prompted me to think of a couple of examples of the pressures put on Canadian authors to set series outside Canada.

At the book launch this past spring of his new Russell Quant mystery, Dos Equis, Anthony Bidulka said it would have been much easier for him to have moved Quant out of Saskatoon and even Canada. Publishers are reluctant to have mystery series set in Canada, let alone outside big city Canada.

David Rotenberg in his first book of the Junction Chronicles, The Placebo Effect, has a Canadian hero. In a post on Q and A with David my first question was:

1.) Why a Canadian action hero in a book that bounces between Canada and the United States? My reading experience would generally have the hero an American if the series was even partially placed in the United States.

Having the lead character as a Canadian allows a perspective on America that often Americans don’t have. I lived in the United States for many years. My wife is a Puerto Rican American. Both of my kids are dual citizens. One lives in the States; the other has the knee jerk hatred of America that is pretty common here.

Our relationship with the elephant down there is pretty darned important for us to understand past the knee jerk stuff. Hence, start in Toronto and work south. I was born and raised in Toronto, although I left for 15 years I’ve been back for 22, and this is the first I’ve been able to write about Toronto. Although, to be honest, it’s more about the Junction than Toronto.

Your insight is true, and there are times that publishers want to push for American Heroes. Decker’s an outsider, we as Canadians are outsiders to the world’s most powerful entity, crumbling as it may be.

I like, even prefer, mysteries set outside the major cities of the world. I expect it is because I reside in a community of 6,000 people far from a huge city.

None of the mysteries of Saskatchewan which are at the core of my blog are set in a big city since there are only 1,000,000 people in the whole province.

Still, when an author with as many books to his credit as Rotenberg notes the pressure to set books in the United States it is very much an issue for new authors of Canada.

I hope that the great success of Canadian authors such as Louise Penny with the Inspector Gamache series focused on the mythical village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships will allow 21st century authors to place their characters where they speak to the authors. Still I doubt there will be a change. L.R. Wright won an Edgar in 1986 for her Karl Alberg mystery, The Suspect, set on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast in the village of Sechelt. The pressure put on Anthony Bidulka and David Rotenberg noted above took place long after Wright’s triumph. I wonder if Miss Marple would ever have been published if Agatha Christie had lived in Saskatchewan and wrote about one of the villages of my province.



Monday, October 22, 2012

"W" is for L.R. Wright

For the letter “W” in the Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, I am profiling Canadian author L.R. Wright.

While long aware of Wright I had not read any of her books until earlier this year when I looked up her first book, The Suspect, for the 5th Canadian Book Challenge. I wished I had started reading her 20 years ago.

I was surprised to learn Wright is a fellow native of Saskatchewan. She was born in Saskatoon in 1939. She grew up in Saskatoon and Abbotsford, British Columbia but actually finished high school in Germany where her father was teaching at a Canadian military base.

As an adult she was a journalist with the Calgary Herald newspaper reaching Assistant City Editor. She left the paper to start writing novels full time.

Writing fiction required her to choose her writing name. The L.R. stands for Laurali Rose but, from even before birth, she was known as Bunny. Her first publisher thought it was not suitable for a writer, especially of crime fiction, and suggested the initials. I disagree. I think Bunny would have been very distinctive but publishers are not noted for originality.

In a 2000 interview in January Magazine she offered numerous insights on her writing.

With regard to her setting and the origins of The Suspect

Why did you choose to set the books on the Sunshine Coast?

Because the first one -- I didn't know it was going to be a mystery, let alone the first one in a series. I'd had an idea. I was having a conversation with some friends and we were talking about the old people in our lives and the things they were up to. And somebody had left their husband and moved in with someone else and they were in their 70s and we said: You think they'd know better. And somebody said: I guess what we're capable of as young people we're capable of when we're old. I'll bet they're just as capable of murder, even. I immediately had this vision of a little old man whacking another little old man over the head. And I thought: I must write this book.

So I started to write it, but I knew I needed a town that was so small because I knew that the person was not a criminal. You know, that this was a crime of passion. They had to live in a town that was so small that these two people couldn't avoid each other. And the only town I knew that was that small was Sechelt. So that's why I set it there. And then when it turned into a mystery and I wanted to do more, I could have moved him [Karl Alberg] to another detachment, but I guess I had really enjoyed that: creating a fictional town, even though it's a real one.

On her writing schedule she said:

You're writing all the time. Do you have a word goal a day? Or...?

I sort of try for five pages which is 1250 words a day. Something like that. And sometimes I get more. I really do it more in scenes. I'll have a scene in my head to write. And then I'll do that. And if it leads to another one immediately, I'll go on.

Unfortunately L.R., as with last week’s author, Michael Van Rooy, died too young. She was 61 when she lost a 6 year battle with breast cancer.

I greatly enjoyed The Suspect. It will be one of my favourite books in 2012. From the opening page we know the killer but that knowledge does not detract from the book.

As I said in my review she captured me when George Wilcox reflected on his murder of his neighbour Carlyle Burke:

“Gradually, as he sat thinking, it occurred to George that to give himself up was pointless. Even stupid. When they caught up with him, fine. He’d go to trial and prison without complaining, with dignity, even, if he could manage it. But to spend any more time locked up than was absolutely necessary – it made no sense.”

It has been a long time since I was as ambivalent about whether I wanted the murderer caught.

It was no surprise when I read The Suspect had won the Edgar for Best Novel in 1986

Recently I read the second in the series Sleep While I Sing. I enjoyed the book and will be posting a review.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part II)

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part II) – In my previous post on Wednesday I discussed what I liked about The Beautiful Mystery and said this post would deal with what I did not like about the book. I warn potential readers of the book that the remainder of this post, though it does not reveal the plot, may contain spoilers that could affect their reading of the book.

The book involves a murder committed in a remote Quebec monastery. What I did not like about The Beautiful Mystery revolved around religious aspects of the story.

The faintly to overtly mocking attitude of the investigators towards the Catholic church, Christianity and the faith based lives of the monks disappointed me. As an active Catholic it bothered me to see such an approach. I know her characters reflect a common sentiment. At the same time I doubt they, especially Gamache, would have expressed the same attitudes towards secular, or even other religious, belief systems. I expect they would have shown a respect they do not have for Christians. It is certainly Penny’s choice on how to approach an issue and I acknowledge I was affected in my reading by my own beliefs.

I felt there was little regard and less understanding of men who devote their lives to God. I advise a reader wanting to understand contemporary monastic life to read The Cloiser Walk by Kathleen Norris. It covers her experiences living with Benedictine monks in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Grievous wrongs have been done by members of the Church. At the same most religious have lived good lives devoted to God and helping others. A book set amidst men committed to God would do better to have more regard for their life choices.

While I regret the attitude towards the Catholic Church and Christian faith of greater distraction to me was the portrayal of the monastery.

It is a Gilbertine community but they were extinguished as an order when Henry VIII closed their monasteries in England in the 16th Century.

To assert a community survived and made its way secretly to the New World and then paddled into the Quebec wilderness and built a hidden monastery of which there has been no knowledge within the Church for hundreds of years defies belief.

Every monastery has a relationship with the Vatican through the head of the Order. Equally each diocese in which a monastery is located is connected to the monastery. Whether in urban or rural Quebec the local bishop knows all monasteries in the diocese.

Priests are ordained by bishops after training in seminaries. It would appear at least the Abbot in the book is a priest by presiding over Mass. He would have had to leave the monastery to be educated. For ordination he would have been at another monastery or a bishop would have come to his monastery.

Outside communities interact with monasteries. There is commerce with all monasteries. The book alludes to the need for money to be earned by the monastery to sustain the community. Cloistered or not monasteries enter into business.

The monastery of the book has been repeatedly repaired. Building supplies and tools must have been purchased and delivered.

It bothered me to have the monks raising animals in the forest without apparent fields to grow the hay and feed. Monks certainly are farmers but they have contacts with those around them. The discussion over chickens could not have taken place without contacts, at a minimum, with other monasteries.

It is the second time Penny has created an implausible situation of “invisibility”. In The Brutal Telling it was a hermit leaving few kilometres from Three Pines. Supposedly no one knew of the hermit. It is not possible to remain unknown near communities.

I could suspend my disbelief for the hermit but not for a whole monastery.

Having the Abbot recruiting monks from other monasteries for an invisible community added to the implausibility. It would certainly be very well known in the Church if monks are leaving monasteries for this monastery.

It did not ring true to have the Abbot engage in such recruitment. I have not heard of Abbots seeking monks only from other monasteries, especially in other Orders.

Monks being recruited for their singing talent would have drawn great attention within the monastic world.

Monks are also a part of government records. Whether for personal income tax or pensions or death certificates monks are recorded.

Even if families would have little contact with cloistered monks they know where their family members have gone to live their lives.

I went to three years of high school and first university at a Benedictine monastery, St. Peter’s Abbey, in Saskatchewan. The monks were a part of their local area while remaining apart.  I appreciate St. Peter’s is not a cloistered community but even closed monastic communities are a part of the life of their area. They do not deny all contact with the world.

I struggled with the portrayal of the monks as locked away from the world, refusing visitors any admittance to their monastery. The monasteries of my experience do not bar visitors, especially pilgrims or people in need, from all contact.

It may add to the story to make the community so closed they are a complete world but it would have been more credible to have them in regular contact with and known to the world. They can be cloistered, even isolated, but still be of the world and maintain the integrity of the story.

To avoid prolonging this post I leave aside my issues with the visitor from Rome.

P.D. James set her book Death in Holy Orders in the closed setting of a remote Anglican seminary. She does not portray the religious as disappeared from the world. It was far more credible to me.

Penny’s monastery would work for fantasy fiction but not for me in a mystery. I will continue to read Penny but I hope future books, if not set in Three Pines, take place in plausible communities.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part I)

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (Part I) – Chief Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete are called to a remote monastery in Quebec to investigate the murder of Frere Mathieu, a world authority on Gregorian chants.

The title comes from Gregorian plain chants. Because people have long been moved by hearing the Psalms sung in plain chants they have become known as the “beautiful mystery”. The chants were sung by generations of monks without the notations of modern music. Eventually small marks, neumes, were used to inform monks on how to sing higher and lower and to hold the chants. Research in the past two centuries of early Gregorian chants has partially restored the original chants. Yet the neumes do not show the starting point for singing chants. The search has continued to find in writing a notation that would show that starting point.

It is a book I enjoyed but I have some significant issues with parts of the book. As I think the issues may be in the nature of spoilers for some readers I am putting those concerns in my next post on Fridy.

In this post I will talk about what I liked about the book.

I admired Penny’s willingness to venture away from Three Pines. It is the first book in the series to have no connections to Three Pines. While I love that mythical village it was interesting to see Penny place Gamache in a setting outside Three Pines.

It is clear Frere Mathieu must have been murdered by one of his fellow 23 monks. No one else was in the monastery.

Dom Philippe lifts their Rule of Silence and encourages the monks to answer the questions of the investigators. It takes time for Gamache and Beauvoir to learn what to ask of the monks. The monastery is a foreign place for the two non-religious men.

They soon realize that in such a closed quiet community slight gestures take on great meaning. They are disconcerted that the monks can read their thoughts through their expressions and body language.

It is an irony of a monastery of silence that the monks sing each day to the glory of God. While Gamache loves the chants Beauvoir finds them dull and boring.

Penny does a good job of developing how difficult it can be to live in a communal life even for men who have devoted their lives to God.

For investigators accustomed to the traditional motives of the secular world they must adjust their thoughts to dealing with men for whom personal possessions have no consequence. Still the monks, despite their focus on God, have personal failings and strong emotions.

Penny creates interesting monks. While each is a skilled singer each has other skills needed for the functioning of a self-contained community.

At the heart of the story is music as art was at the core of the previous book, A Trick of the Light. Amidst the glorious sounds of the chants there is disharmony amongst the monks. Gradually Gamache and Beauvoir determine a great division had settled upon the monastery that provoked huge emotions in the monks and ended in murder.

As indicated at the start of the post there were aspects of this book I disliked as much as I liked. Those issues will be set out in Friday’s post.

Monday, October 15, 2012

“V” is for Michael Van Rooy

The end of the 2012 Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise is near with the letter “V” this week. I have chosen to profile Canadian writer, Michael Van Rooy for “V”.

Van Rooy  was a Winnipeg, Manitoba writer who sadly died last year at 42 of a heart attack. He had been gaining fame for his series of books featuring Monty Haaviko who had become Sam Parker in an effort to escape his criminal past.

It was a subject with which Van Rooy was on personal terms. Morley Walker explained in the Books section of The Winnipeg Free Press in a column in 2010: 
     
After graduating from Sisler High School, he studied history at the University of Manitoba and moonlighted as a blackjack dealer in one of the province's early casinos. 
 
This put him in the vicinity of some disreputable characters. At age 21 he was found guilty of two charges of armed robbery.

"I didn't do it," he insists, despite some caginess about this chapter in his life. "I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

He spent nearly two years as a guest of the criminal justice system, doing time in Stony Mountain and Rockwood Institution before receiving parole.

But the experience, which he recommends to no one, haunted him for more than a decade after and obviously informs his writing even now.

"Who will hire you?" he says. "You can't be bonded. Nobody trusts you."

At six-foot-six and 290 pounds, he worked as a bouncer and a bartender, then a bar manager and restaurant manager. In the early 2000s he managed the McNally Robinson Booksellers' Prairie Ink Caf├ęs. And he wrote novels on the side.

Van Rooy spent a great deal of time in organizations devoted to writing. The obituary in The Winnipeg Free Press stated:

He served as audience development co-ordinator and publicist for the Thin Air Winnipeg writers festival, he was a board member for the Manitoba Writers' Guild and Prairie Fire magazine and an administrator with the Winnipeg Writers' Collective and the Canadian Mennonite University writing school.

The year before his death he was designated "arts ambassador" for literature for the 2010 Cultural Capital program of the City of Winnipeg.

His writing skills had been recognized in 2009 when he won the John Hirsch Award as the Most Promising Writer in Manitoba.

Following his death the Manitoba Books Award organization established the Michael van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction. Genres covered by the Award include horror, mystery, thriller and graphic novels.

The photo above from The Winnipeg Free Press accompanied an article featuring some of his favourite things:

       If your house were on fire, heaven forbid, what's the one
       item contained within that you would try to take with
       you? (People and pets not included.)

      My laptop. (I'm a writer... I gotta be honest here!) 

      What's the oldest thing you own?

      A 40,000-year-old mammoth tusk.

      Describe your most beloved piece of furniture.
 
      My most beloved piece of furniture is a treadle Singer
      sewing machine that currently holds up the television
      with the Xbox on the treadle. It's godawful heavy but I
      treasure it for the memories of bringing it to and from the
      cabin, balanced precariously in an open boat.

I read and reviewed the first book in the series, An Ordinary Decent Criminal. In it Haaviko / Parker struggles to escape the stereotype society has of an ex-con. In particular, his treatment by the police is striking and frightening. It is a powerful book. I said in my review:

It is hard boiled fiction with a character seeking to change in a world that refuses to believe he has changed.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

52. – 462.) No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay – A terrifying premise for an unusual thriller. Cynthia Bigge, 14 years old, wakes up one morning after an argument with her parents to find her mother, father and older brother have disappeared. Nothing is missing. Nothing is taken. There are no signs of violence. They are just gone. No one can find a trace of them. 25 years later Cynthia is married to Terry Archer and has an 8 year old daughter, Grace. Cynthia cannot stand not knowing. She appears on a reality T.V. show, Deadline, which has a regular feature on old unsolved crimes. There is no direct response but there are events around the house that suggest someone knows the answers and is secretly leaving clues. As there is no reason for these contacts either Terry or Cynthia making up these events The plot unfolds steadily and logically. What makes the thriller unique is the participation of a whole family. It is a rare thriller featuring parents and a child. There are tantalizing hints in the clues but it is impossible to understand why clues are now being left to solve the mystery. The ending was alittle disappointing with an unnecessary twist. The story was deftly told. The book grabbed me and I rushed through it. Hardcover or paperback. (Dec. 23/08)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"U" is for Arthur W. Upfield

Earlier in the week I posted my review of The Battling Prophet by Arthur W. Upfield as my first post for “U” in the 2012 Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her fine blog, Mysteries in Paradise. A year ago I had posted a profile of Upfield for the 2011 meme. Today I am putting up a second post for “U” that features the origins of Upfield’s character, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte.

Upfield, upon his return to Australia from Europe after serving in the Australian Army in WW I, found work in the outback in a variety of jobs including work along the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence.

While living in the bush he worked on his writing.

The first book, The Barrakee Mystery, for his enduring character, Bony, was published in 1929.

Travis Lindsey in his Master’s thesis, available on the official Upfield site, discusses the origins of Bony from Follow My Dust!, Jessica Hawke’s biography of Upfield:

According to Hawke, in her biographical work written in collaboration with Arthur Upfield, Upfield was boundary-riding from an outstation for five months around 1924 with one other, a part-Aboriginal, part-European called Tracker Leon, who had spent some years as a tracker with the Queensland police. Leon was supposedly found as a baby with his dead mother in the shade of a sandalwood tree. He had been brought up in a mission school, where he made such progress that he was afforded a high school education.

Hawke’s account continues that the even-tempered, pedantic Tracker was brown-skinned, lean, of less than middle height, and possessed of eyes of a piercing blue. Unusually for one not of pure Aboriginal descent, he bore the cicatrices of the fully initiated.

Lindsey subsequently sets out other examples of Upfield providing slightly different sources for Bony.

In a 1950 interview for The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper he refers to meeting a half-caste aborigine of exceptional intelligence who taught him tracking and tried to interest him in The Iliad.

In an unpublished autobiographical work from 1938 Lindsey says Upfield referred to meeting a swagman “around 1925 on the road to Bourke”. He refers to traveling together for a month and engaging in sophisticated historic, ideological and political discussions.

Lindsey believes the explanations of Upfield are as fictional as Bony. He is satisfied from comparing when and how the explanations were given that they were created to satisfy public and press demand for an explanation of Bony’s origins.

Conducting a literary detective investigation he reaches the conclusion that Upfield was actually inspired by another author, Catherine Martin. In her 1923 book, The Incredible Journey, she features an Aborigine woman, Iliapa, but also has a prominent male character an Aborigine, Nanka, that Lindsey believes was the origin of Bony. He quotes Nanka’s description of himself in The Incredible Journey:

You know I have been long, long away from all my own people, (he said). A police trooper took me to Alice Springs, then away to the Northern Territory. For many years I have been a tracker to the police force. I am now, but not in uniform. I am on what they call the secret service. They gave me the name of being one of the most cunning trackers in Australia. When the inspector of police wants to find things out from the blacks he will sometimes say, “You may as well tell me what really took place, for we have a tracker here, as you know, who can become the very shadow of a guilty man. He may then go to the left or to the right, to the north, south, east or west; he may lie in a cave; or climb a mountain to the sky; he may hide among the rushes round a swamp, or go far by the Great Salt Water that has only one shore; but Jim - that is what they call me - will find him. Jim can track a spider or a bullock, a man or a lizard, even on horseback, running all the time, hardly looking at the ground.” After a time they sent me sometimes all alone as far as Queensland and New South Wales to find out about men who were thought to have done some evil thing. I have been sent here in that way. I will tell you why. Some moons ago an inspector of police came on a visit from Adelaide. One day he got a letter from a brother who looks after the men that are in prison all their lives. One of these is a boundary-rider of Roalmah, who was tried some years ago for killing a black man one night at the Wonka Creek. . . . The boundary-rider paid a very clever man of law to speak for him, so he was not hung, only kept all the time in prison.

There are differences between Bony and Nanka but Lindsey makes a convincing argument Upfield drew on Martin’s character, Nanka, to create Bony.

(There have been some interesting comments on my review of The Battling Prophet about the merits of Upfield as an author.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Battling Prophet by Arthur W. Upfield (1956)

The Battling Prophet by Arthur W. Upfield (1956) – I am going to have 2 entries this week for “U” in Kerrie Smith’s meme, The Alphabet in Crime Fiction. See her blog at Mysteries in Paradise. My next post will be a further profile of Arthur W. Upfield. 

In The Battling Prophet Bony takes a vacation, leave in his parlance, in the state of South Australia on the Murray River near to Mount Gambier. He arrives at the farm of John Luton in response to a letter from Luton concerning the death of Luton’s friend Ben Wickham. Bony decides to take 10 days off to go fishing with Luton and figure out what happened to Wickham.

Wickham had gained considerable notoriety for his talents as a self-taught meteorologist. He asserts he has discovered how to predict the weather from his study of 40 years of weather records. Governments and the establishment had scoffed at his claims. When he correctly predicted a severe drought and farmers started following his advice there is growing interest in and outside Australia over using his forecasts.

Luton refuses to accept the official cause of death – heart failure because of alcoholic poisoning. Luton and Wickham had been on one of their periodic epic benders but Luton says his friend did not die from their overindulgence in spirits.

Luton is a vigorous 84 and Wickham an equally active 75. In their younger days they had been bullock drivers together in the outback driving teams of 26-28 bullocks hauling huge loads.

While they do not drink to excess often they still have multi-day, even multi-week, benders. Usually they will confine their drinking to a single type of spirits. On this bender they have been drinking bottle after bottle of gin.

Before Wickham’s death they had decided to end the bender. From long experience they had learned they needed to have periodic small drinks to reduce the effects of delirium tremens. Every few hours they would have a drink.

It was shortly after one of these drinks that Wickham had died. Beyond his personal conviction that his friend’s heart would not have succumbed to drink, Luton has the most creative analysis for finding murder I may have read.

Luton is sure Wickham did not die from the D.T.’s, hoo-jahs in their words, because, at his death, Wickham was not displaying the type of hoo-jahs that come from drinking gin.

Luton precisely describes the different hoo-jahs to Bony:

“When we boozed on whiskey, the things we saw sort of grew before our eyes. When we blinked, they didn’t vanish, but stayed on the table, on our knees, wherever they happened to appear and grow like roses on a bush. Following a spell on rum, the things appear suddenly and vanish suddenly after playing around like they wanted to bite you. The gin hoo-jahs is still different. You see them out of the corner of your eye. They always stalk you from behind, and when you turn to look at ‘em, they aren’t there. Understand?”

Just prior to perishing, Wickham was seeing things on his legs and feet and laughing at them. Those were not the gin hoo-jahs.

Luton is positive that government or commercial interests who dislike Wickham’s weather work have reason to want him dead.

The local doctor, police and minister have been dismissive of Luton. Bony, while not specifically agreeing with Luton, decides to see what reaction his presence provokes in the community.

When he lets word filter out there is an immediate response by all areas of officialdom that is capped by directions from his superior in distant Queensland to return to his home.

As Bony probes the reactions to his unofficial investigation become more dramatic.

It is a good, not great, mystery. Some of the forces against Bony are not really credible but it was interesting to see Bony dealing with a different kind of murder.

It is the first time I have read a Bony mystery that did not include involvement with aboriginal people.

I appreciated learning of Bony’s origins. Bony said:

“I was found beneath a sandalwood tree, found in the arms of my mother, who had been clubbed to death for breaking a law. Subsequently, the matron of the Mission Station to which I was taken and reared found me eating the pages of Abbotts’s Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. The matron possessed a peculiar sense of humour. The result – my name. Despite the humour, she was a great woman. Aware of the burden of birth I would always have to carry, she built for me the foundations of my career. My entry to the Queensland Police Department came about after I had won my M.A. at the Brisbane University, …..”

I continue to enjoy the series and have found it does not really matter that I am not reading them in order. Bony is a keen observer of humankind and a tenacious police officer. He will not let go until he resolves a case. (Oct. 6/12)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

"T" is for Donald Serrell Thomas

It is late in the week but I have a posting for “T” in The Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme of Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise. I am profiling the English author, Donald Serrell Thomas.

Born in 1926 Thomas has been and remains a prolific author. He has written fiction, non-fiction (history and academic) and poetry. He has edited books and been translator of a French book. Wikipedia lists him as the author of over 50 books.

He was a professor of English Literature and is currently a Professor Emeritus at Cardiff University.

For an academic and author of his distinction I had difficulty finding articles and images of him. The photo that accompanies this post was the only one I could find and comes from the Cardiff University website and only remained recognizable in the original size.

He is an authority on Victorian England. Wikipedia states:

He has written a number of books, mostly novels, on a variety of subjects predominantly set in Victorian England. He has also written a small number of non-fiction works dealing with similar subjects/settings, among them a study of the Victorian underworld, and biographies of Robert Browning, the Marquis de Sade, Henry Fielding, and Lewis Carroll.

His 1978 (rev. ed. 2001) biography of Admiral Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald highlights the characteristics of that individual which served in large part as inspiration both for C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, and for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey.

He is noted for his knowledge of the English criminal underworld from the Victorian era to the present.

He wrote both fiction and non-fiction under the pseudonym, Francis Selwyn.
In crime fiction Wikipedia cites “three series featuring the main characters of:
Alfred Swain, an inspector of Scotland Yard.
Sonny Tarrant, a "gangland capo", and
Sgt. William Clarence Verity, a "Sergeant in Scotland Yard's 'Private Clothes Detail'" who investigates the Victorian criminal underground of London, c.1850.”

The Verity series was written under the Selwyn pseudonym.

I have read one of his most recent books, The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories published in 2007.

In my review I stated:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s combination of penetrating observations, clever deductions, forensic analysis and bold confident actions are skillfully continued by Thomas. It was

I found myself enjoying the Holmes stories and concluded that I liked Holmes better in stories than full length books.