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 10, 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout – The third book on the shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is unlike any book of legal fiction I have read. The plot is neither about a trial nor about a single lawyer. It is about a pair of brothers, the Burgess Boys, from Shirley Falls, Maine who have become lawyers and live in New York City.

Jim, the older brother, gained fame for his successful defence of a murder charge against a popular black soul singer, Wally Packer, who had allegedly had his white girl friend killed. Think of a white Johnny Cochran. Jim is now a member of a prominent New York City law firm specializing in white collar criminal defence.

Bob, the younger brother, is a large shambling man living quietly who was not up to the stresses of trial work. He works for Legal Aid in the appellate division reviewing cases that are being appealed and writing briefs.

Jim is living with the lovely Helen and has 3 grown children. They reside in a fine home in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn.

Bob is divorced and childless. He lives in an apartment in the same area.

They are called back to Shirley Falls because of a family crisis. Their nephew, Zack, is the only son of their sister, Susan Olson. She calls in a panic as Zack has confided to her that he has rolled the frozen head of a pig into the local mosque during prayer. There is a large community of Somali refugees in Shirley Falls.

Blood from the frozen head has stained the mosque carpet requiring special ritual cleaning. Members of the mosque are upset.

The act gains national publicity as accusations of a hate crime flow out across America.

When Jim and Bob interview Zack they find an unhappy 19 year old boy locked into a job stocking shelves at Walmart and hanging out with a friend or two in town.

His uncles' characterize Zack's actions as a dumb joke. He did not know it was a mosque. He only knew Somali people went there. He does not know the provocation to Muslims inherent in rolling the pig's head into the mosque. Somalis speak of him as Wiil Waal – “Crazy Boy”.

Zack has not been in trouble with the law. He is terrified of going to jail.

While the public thinks he is a racist and intent on stirring up conflict between the whites and Somalis of Shirley Falls he is really a scared boy who was not thinking of consequences and had no intent to make any political statement. Later in the book his motivations become a little more complex but Zack is no agitator.

He is the type of person I have encountered throughout my life as a defence counsel. He is young and male and committed a stupid act that neither caused physical harm nor took money from anyone. He is a criminal until you meet him. Upon meeting you realize he could be almost any young man who acted foolishly in the wrong way.

As a prominent member of the legal community Jim has connections within the state Department of Justice.

Bob has compassion.

With the aid of a local defence lawyer they follow a common legal strategy. They set a trial date well into the future and look to make a deal when public furor has diminished. I pass on their legal approach as it is not a book whose plot is dependant on dramatic legal flourishes.

It was an interesting book but it did not read easily. All of the major characters have dreary lives and far more problems than joy. The public Jim is a friendly affable guy. Privately he is sarcastic and moody. Bob kind of muddles along lonely and tentative. Susan lives a life of mind numbing routine. Zack spends most of his time in his room. When the characters lack zest, let alone sparkle, I find it harder to enjoy the book. Other readers may find them intriguing. Many prominent reviews praise the book. I found the Burgess family sad.

I credit Strout for writing about a credible legal approach to a criminal case that avoids the national spectacle Zack’s case could have become were he represented by some defence counsel. Using time to defend Zack lacks drama but it is realistic.

I am not sure if I would read another book from Strout. The characters would certainly need to be less depressing for me.


  1. Bill, terming Zack's vandalism as a dumb joke or a foolish act kind of flies in the face of an act as serious as the desecration of a mosque, at least from a religious and ethnic point of view. I don't have a problem with depressing characters so long as the plot than holds them up and, I think, in this case it's not convincing.

    1. Prashant: Thank you for the comment. You rightly set out is a serious action. Should it be punished as a criminal event with life long consequences is the question? Zack did not realize he was committing desecration. When should criminal law be invoked when the harm is neither physical nor financial?

  2. Bill - It's good to hear that the legal strategy used here is realistic if not 'flashy.' And I agree with you about depressing characters. I get my fill of them, too. To me, characters have to be engaging, at least in some way, in order for me to want to keep reading.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I am reading more legal fiction where the legal decisions are more "real" and less Perry Mason.

      On characters few people have lives as bleak as the Burgess Boys.

  3. I read another book by Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge. A friend gave it to me, she loved it.... but I didn't, I was very disappointed. So although there are some interesting aspects in the book you read, I probably won't go for it. Helpful and honest review, thanks Bill.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. I had read the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge and wondered if I should try it to see if I might have misjudged The Burgess Boys. After reading your comment I doubt I will read it.

  4. I couldn't get into Olive Kitteridge, although three reader friends liked it much. I think Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for it, if I'm not mistaken.

    I pondered reading this book, but this review may dissuade me. My TBR list and piles are just too huge.

    The question of whether a young man knows what he is doing is desecrating a holy site is a good one. Where I live, young men desecrate mosques and synagogues and paint bigoted, vile slogans and logos on them or around a community. The perpetrators aren't regarded as innocents when this happens.

    Perhaps the issue is to find out if they are racists or anti-Semitic or anti-Islam when investigating the cases. Then education is needed, and community service perhaps.
    If it happens more than once, then it's more serious.

    One never knows what the actions of youth will bring. Anti-gay attacks happen in
    my city with regularity; people end up hospitalized. And anti-immigrant attacks, too,
    along with other bigoted assaults.

    So, can a lark develop into something worse? Can it turn into a desecretion of a
    religious site or writing racist slogans or carrying out symbolically bigoted acts or
    then worse, assaults on people or their homes.

    This all happens here. I think people have to be accountable for these actions,
    but the perpetrator's words and explanations have to be heard and answered,
    so he knows how serious are his acts.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I find too often in criminal law people assume they know the reasons behind a person's action by the nature of the action. You need to know the person to determine their intent.

      Desecration should never be ignored. Should criminal charges always be laid? I question the need to involve criminal law if the desecration was slight and the perpetrator did not realize it was desecration. I think there are other sanctions adequate to denounce the act.

  5. Education is important. Often people are not taught to respect other people's cultures, languages, religious practices nor do they know about them. Also, having to hear the feelings expressed by those victimized. Perhaps something important could be learned.

    But then there are also the responses and calls for justice from the people harmed; that
    has to be recognized, too. So, how does society balance both sets of needs?

    That's why the criminal justice system is complicated, and doesn't always do the right thing.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for your comment. We see too many examples in the world of lack of respect. One of the aspects of The Burgess Boys that was most interesting was what was expressed by the Somali community.

      I acknowledge the criminal justice system, as all systems is not perfect, but I think most cases get to the right result if all the facts and law are reviewed. Too often people form opinions from the information filtered by media sources.

  6. Well, I live in a country which has the largest incarceration rate in the world: 2.4 million people imprisoned. This doesn't count undocumented immigrants in detention centers.

    Much of the sentencing is unfair and unequal. The vast numbers in jail are people of color. Incarceration of children is rampant, especially in the South. Solitary confinement is also rampant, criticized by U.N. commissions on torture. The death penalty is also carried out in a discriminatory way and is horrific as it is.

    And then there are the stop-and-frisks, which were found by a judge to be discriminatory and unconstitutional in my city. Have they been curtailed? Don't know, but now street artists and performers are being arrested for performing in subway stations and on the platforms. This has gone on for decades and now people are being harassed and arrested.

    There are racial and economic disparities in sentencing, and so much more. Most people have to rely on public defenders who are very overworked and given barely any resources with which to carry out adequate defenses, and all that entails. I have sympathy with them; two of my friends do this in NY courts.

    I can only speak for this country. I don't know enough about other countries' criminal justice systems. But from what I see, read and hear about this system is very unfair.

  7. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. Do you feel safer in America with 2.4 million in prison? I have not felt safer when I visit the U.S. than here in Canada. What I can say for certainty is that prisons are now a major American industry.