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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

My Choice for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

The shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction has three books – Sycamore Row by John Grisham, When We Were Brothers by Ronald D. Balson and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. In an exchange of emails with the University of Alabama I learned the winner’s name will be released at the same the Award is presented on August 28, 2014 at the National Book Festival in Washington. As I did last year I have read the shortlist. Unlike last year I have read them before the winner was announced.

For this post I will not try to create suspense. My choice if I were voting for the Prize would be Sycamore Row.

I found myself hesitating for a moment as Grisham has already won the Prize. Certainly the other authors could use the publicity of the Prize far more than Grisham. In the end, I concluded I want to make my decision based on the quality of the books rather than the fame or obscurity of the author.

The criteria for the Prize is that it is awarded each year “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.

It was a close decision for me. Both Sycamore Row and When We Were Brothers tackle big themes. Sycamore Row explores continuing racism in rural Mississippi and how the world of the Deep South is gradually changing with regard to race relations. When We Were Brothers examines alleged collaborator complicity in the Holocaust by a prominent Chicago businessman and philanthropist.

The Burgess Boys was out of the running for me. It delves into how a pair of New York City lawyer brothers, the Burgess boys, return to their Maine hometown to help their 19 year old nephew, Zack, who is facing criminal charges for rolling the frozen head of a pig through the local mosque. It was hard for me to see how The Burgess Boys “illuminated” the power of lawyers to effect change. Their primary legal strategy was to prolong the process.

In Sycamore Row lawyer, Jake Brigance, in the late 1980’s takes on the defence of a will providing most of a multi-million dollar estate of a white businessman to his black part-time housekeeper. A court action sees teams of big city lawyers descending on Clanton to challenge the will.

The book provides a classic example of the role in lawyers in society and their power to effect change. Rights and the rule of law are empty phases in our society if there  are no lawyers willing to take court actions to uphold rights and apply the rule of law.

Not long before the 1980’s Lettie Lang would have found it difficult to find a competent dedicated lawyer to represent her in what the community perceives as a conflict between whites and blacks.

Jake is bringing change, slowly but steadily, to an area of America still in the process of de-segregation during the 1980’s. Jake is working to convince the white and black populations of Ford County that legal decisions must be made on our Anglo based legal system not on the colour of a litigant’s skin.

In When We Were Brothers, Ben Solomon cannot pursue a war criminal six decades later except with the help of a lawyer willing to fight.

There is no practical way for an individual to take action in court with regard to a war crime. It requires at a minimum a lawyer, more likely a law firm, willing to commit at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in time and expenses with little probability they will be paid.

In the Nuremberg trials the Western world began to use legal structures to respond to war crimes. Where a victor’s justice had previously been exacted with summary trials and swift executions the criminal trials after WW II began the process of conducting fair transparent trials for alleged war criminals.

More recently courts have taken up the challenge in civil actions by ordering financial compensation to victims of war crimes. Solomon is on such a civil quest. Solomon has a compelling story reaching deep into the horrors of the Holocaust.

If only Balson were a little better writer and the dialogue sounded more natural. I found Sycamore Row the better written book.

In my choice I am in a distinct minority among readers of the American Bar Association Journal who voted 903 times as follows with regard to the Award:
  • Once We Were Brothers - 603 votes (66.78%)
  • Sycamore Row - 205 votes (22.7%)
  • The Burgess Boys - 95 votes (10.52%)
Their choice of Once We Were Brothers becomes a vote. It is counted as one of the 7 votes for the Prize. The six individual judges each have one vote.

I am looking forward later this month to see which book has won the Prize. 




  1. You make a good case for your choice, but both books sound interesting. (like you, I have eliminated The Burgess Boys from my thinking!) And you make a good point: Grisham doesn't need the boost, but if his is the better book of the two....

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. I would be interested in your choice if you get a chance to read Sycamore Row and When We Were Brothers.

  2. Bill - A fine choice. You've done an excellent job too of making your case for Sycamore Row. I know exactly what you mean too about choosing the best of the books, even if the author is already well-known. Now we'll see if the award committee agrees with you...

    1. Margot: Thanks for the kind words. I will be surprised if the award committee chooses Sycamore Row.

  3. Having recently been on a judging panel I can say that a fairly lengthy discussion was had about the issue of selecting a book by a well-known, much-awarded author versus a lesser-known one. Given that overall quality was equal (and highly subjective anyway) we went round and round.

    I've not read any of the nominated titles for this particular award but enjoyed reading your thoughts and have bookmarked this post for coming back to when I get a bit more control over my sadly neglected TBR pile - you've made a good case for me to read two books, regardless of the outcome of the award

    1. Bernadette: Thanks for the comment. I do not envy you being on a judging a panel. I find judgments of books about the most subjective form of judging there is in the world. I hope you get read books from this year's shortlist.

  4. Bill, it's hard not to like a John Grisham novel as he takes the reader right through his narrative giving the reader a sense of involvement. I recall your reviews of all three books and any of them could win on their day.

    1. Prashant: Thanks for the comment. I continue to read each Grisham legal mystery / thriller as it is published.

  5. Hmmm. I've only read Sycamore Row of the three books, and I would give John Grisham an award, but good books about the Holocaust have a big draw, too, especially so many decades later, going after possible war criminals is a good plot.

    Have you read The Collini Case by German defense attorney Ferdinand Von Schirach? It's a good book for an attorney to read, dealing with German law and WWII. Its conclusions were shocking to me, but not surprising, if that makes sense.

    Alas, racism is far from over in the U.S. The recent police shooting of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. is one more terrible example of police brutality. The community in Ferguson is outraged at the inaction about their just grievances, and the only answer is a show of force.

    And a month ago, police in Staten Island killed an African-American man by using a chokehold. It was videotaped and the video was all over TV. Today, the prosecutor announced he's investigate. We'll see what really happens.

    Hopefully, the federal government can do something to respond.

    There are still lynchings here in the South. African-American people are harder hit by unemployment, income and education disparities and a lot of discrimination everywhere.

    So, it sounds as if either of the two books could win and deserve to win. I think John Grisham has a lot of integrity and is principled in his views on many issues, including being against racism.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful comment.

      I will read the Collini Case when I see a copy in a bookstore.

      You raise important issues about the administration of justice. Our system works best when defendants can afford good legal counsel.

      Grisham is indeed a fine and principled man as well as an excellent author.