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.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Exchange with Stan Jones on Helen Mercer and Sarah Palin

While reading Tundra Kill by Stan Jones I was fascinated by his character, Governor Helen Mercer. I wrote to Stan and he kindly replied. I appreciate his responses. My letter and his reply (in bold) are below:
Dear Stan

Thank you for sending me a copy of Tundra Kill for review. I enjoyed reading the book and will have a review posted shortly.

I am intrigued by Helen aka Wheels aka Suka Mercer in the book. She is a striking character whose fictional personality dominates the book.

Last year I wrote a review of Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. In the book one of his prominent characters is Vladimir Putin, the actual President of Russia, as a character in his work of fiction. He gives Putin a murderous venal character.

I subsequently put up a trio of posts on the issue of libel when real life people or thinly disguised actual people are featured in fiction.

I note you have the usual disclaimer that Tundra Kill is a work of fiction and resemblance to anyone is “purely coincidental”. However, Suka as she prefers to be called in the book, must have been inspired by former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

Between the physical description down to the rectangular glasses and high cheekbones to the “manic personality” to being the former Governor of Alaska to being an American Vice-Presidential candidate to her love of red clothing the resemblance is remarkable.

You are not the first author I have read that looked to a recognizable real life political leader for an important role in a mystery. Just over 25 years ago Saskatchewan author, Gail Bowen, in the first book of the Joanne Kilbourn series created Andy Boychuk as Saskatchewan Premier. He was clearly patterned on actual former Premier Roy Romanow. Boychuk became her first victim dying from a poisoned glass of water at a summer political picnic.

If you are willing I have a few questions:

1.) Do you happen to know Ms. Palin and, if so, what is your relationship? Saskatchewan is a small province in population and I have met several of our Premiers over the years. I expect with Alaska not having a large population there is a good chance you have met Governors;

You're right, Alaska's a very small state, except geographically, I often say that we have zero degrees of separation up here, meaning everybody seems to know everybody. Think of us as a 650,000 square mile village!

So, yes, I have met Sarah Palin, though it might be an exaggeration to say we know each other. I remember the encounter, but I'm sure she does not.

It was in 2008 when she was running for governor. My boss at the time was a Palin supporter. I shook hands and exchanged pleased-to-meetchas with her when we met her plan at the Anchorage airport. So, if that qualifies as 'knowing' the former governor, put me on the list!

2.) By this time I am sure Ms. Palin would know about Suka and the plot of Tundra Kill. Without giving particulars from the book there are aspects of Suka that might be uncomfortable if not upsetting. Has Ms. Palin responded to the book?

She has not responded, so I don't know if she's aware of it or not. Seems fairly likely since, as noted above, Alaska is basically America's largest small town.

3.) In your acknowledgements you express appreciation to a pair of Alaskan lawyers for their assistance on several matters. Without compromising attorney client privilege I would interested in whether they or any other attorneys reviewed your depiction of Suka from a libel perspective and what you might be willing to share on how you crafted Suka considering the issue of libel.

I didn't have it reviewed expressly for libel risk, though, as you note, a couple of lawyers advised me on various aspects of the story. And my very experienced agent read it from cover to cover.

As far as techniques for avoiding libel, I made it abundantly clear in the text of the story that Helen Mercer is *not* Sarah Palin. Helen is from Chukchi; Sarah is from Wasilia. Helen is identified as Alaska's second woman governor; Sarah was the first. Helen's husband races dogs; Sarah's husband races snowmobiles; Helen was in the Alaska Legislature before being elected governor; Sarah was never in the Legislature; and so on -- there are other biographical differences, but probably too many to list.

And the most important difference: Sarah Palin has never been involved in a murder case!

Fact and fiction already blur in real life for me with regard to Ms. Palin (I do not use “Governor” as I have a hard time following the American way of calling someone by their title even after the job has ended.)

Earlier this year I watched Ms. Palin’s vigorous endorsement of Donald Trump. Subsequently, I saw the Saturday Night Live parody of the endorsement. Watching the two videos I found it challenging to separate the real from the unreal.

Funny you should mention that. As you may recall, Tina Fey did an amazing impression of Palin during the 2008 presidential race. At one point, Fey-as-Palin said, "I can see Russia from my house."

Hilarious, and absolutely sounds like Palin, even if she never said it.

Which takes me to my point: I still run into people from outside Alaska who are of the firm belief that Palin really did say it! They are shocked and a little disappointed to hear it was only a send-up on Saturday Night Live!

I see your portrayal of Suka as non-malicious which is a key element in American libel law.

4.) Can you become Governor of Alaska if you are not a hunter?

Good question! Legally, you can; politically, probably not!

I plan to post this email after putting up my review. I would be glad to include your replies to the questions if you are willing to have them posted. I will have a third post on Governor Palin and red parkas.

You have my permission to use my responses.

I think Nathan Active is a great character and hope Suka returns to the series.

Me too! I'll have to find a way!
Best wishes.

Bill Selnes

Thanks again for the great questions, and for your interest in the Nathan books!

Stan Jones

Jones, Stan – (2009) - White Sky, Black Ice; (2010) - Shaman Pass; (2012) - "J" is for Stan Jones; (2013) - Frozen Sun; (2013) - Q & A with Stan Jones on Nathan Active and Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte - Part I and Part II; (2015) - Village of the Ghost Bears; (2015) - Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series; (2016) - Tundra Kill Hardcover


  1. Thank you, Bill, for sharing this. And thanks, too, to Mr. Jones for allowing us to read what he had to say. It is really interesting how the fiction and real-life characters resemble each other, isn't it? As has been made quite clear, they are not the same, but it's hard to miss the resemblance. I also thought your question about libel was really interesting. It's something that all authors face, I think, at one time or another. Disclaimer or no disclaimer, it's important to think about that. Oh, and I really liked that description of Alaska as 'America's largest small town.'

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Fiction and reality were blended from the first page Jones described Mercer. Jones did provide one of the year's most memorable characters.

  2. A very interesting exchange, Bill. I am glad you followed up with all these questions.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. I appreciate Stan being willing to respond frankly to my questions.