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, August 21, 2018

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney


(27. – 957.) The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney – A serial killer has raped and killed three women during the winter of 1969 in Glasgow. The papers have dubbed him “The Quaker” because he quotes the Bible on sin, especially sinful women.

There is a distinctly uncomfortable opening to the book. The first victim, Jacquilyn Keevins, recounts the events leading up to her murder and how she was attacked and how she hovers about her family, a ghostly presence of which they are unaware.

The murders have taken place amidst the devastation of urban renewal in Glasgow. Streets are lined with condemned buildings, many still containing a few residents determined to stay until the wreckers arrive at their door. A self-inflicted war zone has been created for the Quaker.

The police have a decent description of the Quaker:

…. A well-dressed modern man with his short fair hair and his neat raincoat, his gallantry and his hair trigger temper. Good manners. Nice diction …. Brown chalkstripe suit, regimental tie. Thick watchstrap. Embassy Filter. Overlapping two front teeth. Suede boots.

And still he has eluded the police.

DI Duncan McCormack is assigned from the Flying Squad to the team of officers still pursuing the investigation. They vigorously resent his presence. They rightly believe he has been designated to review their efforts and provide a report that will justify the dismantling of the team and the unofficial end of the investigation. They will be known as failures.

McCormack was born and grew up in the Highlands. His father died young from the corrosive effects of working in the furnace room of an aluminum plant:

You couldn’t see a yard in front of your face, the air soupy with dust and fumes, and a noise like Hades.

McCormack has asthma he controls with a puffer.

He is burdened with personal secrets.

Above all he is a dedicated thoughtful police officer. He does not blunder about using brute force to extract information.

McCormack sees past the anger of the Quaker team. They are saturated with frustration:

Fifteen months of work. A hundred cops in teams of twelve working fourteen hour days. They’d taken 50,000 statements. They’d interviewed 5,000 suspects, visited 700 dentists, 450 hairdressers, 240 tailors. Scores of churches and golf clubs. How many man hours did it come to – a million? Two? How could all these numbers add up to zero?

So many fair haired men have been suspected, informed upon and viewed by the sister of a murder victim who saw the Quaker that cards have been issued by the police to men cleared so they do not continue to be harassed.

While McCormack conducts his review safecracker, Alan Paton, is contacted to come back to Glasgow from London to join a team planning to rob an auction house of jewels. Initially reluctant he decides to participate. The return will be large and the risk is mangeable.

How McIlvanney connects the commercial robbery with the serial killer investigation reflects his skill as a writer.

And then a fourth murder turns all the analysis, too often assumptions, into turmoil. The investigation must begin anew.

McCormack is a sleuth to remember. His tenacity and intelligence ensure a thorough investigation. He has the rare ability to tackle a problem he has failed to solve by reflecting and taking a new approach. Human nature normally leads us to repeatedly tackle a problem in the same way thinking we must have missed an approach to solution in our first or second or continued attempts.

The plot was clever. There was a twist involving the actions of a suspect that was brilliant but to describe would be a huge spoiler.

The Quaker is one of the best works of crime fiction I have read in 2018. I want to read more of McIlvanney. His book, Where the Dead Men Go, was the winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel in 2014. I expect The Quaker to be on the shorlist for the 2019 Awards.

(I had not planned to read back to back books by New Zealand writers. I read Marlborough Man knowing I had a specific date on this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour for my review. I recently received a copy of The Quaker from the Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. I appreciate them providing me with the book. It was still on my desk waiting to go on the TBR pile when I finished Marlborough Man so I picked up The Quaker and could not put it down. I found my reading accelerating a pace with McCormack’s investigation.)


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Marlborough Man by Alan Carter


(26. – 956.) Marlborough Man by Alan Carter – Sgt. Nick Chester is a suspicious man. Even though he is living in the quiet countryside of the South Island of New Zealand he is wary of the unexpected and the unexplained.

He has been a recent émigré, more like refugee, from England. A few years ago he had gone undercover in Sunderland to penetrate the gang run by Sammy Pritchard.

His guise was clever, an officer in the Prisons Department, but surprisingly Chester uses his real name. It helps with the infiltration for Pritchard knows of Chester from going to the same school. It also means the gang knows he is married to Vanessa and has a son, Paulie, with Down’s Syndrome.

When the gang goes after them Chester and his family are re-located to New Zealand.

In New Zealand Chester is called out to the murder scene where six year old, Jamie Riley, has been found dead. The location is a local landmark. A thousand pairs of kids shoes have been hung on a fence.

The terse description of death by DC Ford says enough:

‘Neck snapped. But there was other damage too. Somebody has had him for a week now.’

Aiding Chester is a newly graduated officer, Constable Latifa Rapata. She is bright and ironic and capable. Her sharp tongue daily jabs Chester.

Chester is not the only resident of Havelock escaping a past. Australian pedophile, Patrick Smith, has come to the edge of New Zealand after constant harassment in Australia. He is living on an isolated beach only accessible by water.

DI Marianne Keegan, called in from Wellington, is leads the investigation. She is uncomfortable that Chester, a Sergeant, is stationed in Havelock, a town of but 500 people, and that Chester has no history.

Residing in a rural area of limited population means no stranger can stay unnoticed and local “sad bastards” are well known.

I was intrigued that the focus of the plot is divided almost equally between the murder investigation and Chester’s life.

Is Pritchard tracking down Chester and his family so he can wreak vengeance? The never ending tension is cruelly affecting his marriage to Vanessa. The question has to be resolved. His marriage cannot cope with the strain.

Having spent a lifetime representing people facing criminal charges, fractured marriages, broken contracts and all the other conflicts that lead to court I recognize that Chester will no longer turn away from his trouble. I say to many clients that everyone at least once in life must decide if they will stand up and fight for themselves. I will stand with them in court but only they can determine if they are ready to do battle. Chester will no longer run.

The characters are interesting. I cared about them.

Chester is a real man with a darkness to his character. A willingness to let the ends justify the means caught up to him in England. His work ambition has led him into exile far from home. Now he is dedicated to being a good police man. Being a good man is harder.

Chester’s wife, Vanessa, is a complex woman. Frustrated over being forced from England she is striving to re-build her life in this new land. She wants to love Chester however there are “buts”.

Paulie is a rarity in crime fiction. Relatively few mystery authors give their sleuths real families. Fewer yet have a sleuth with a challenged child. Chester and Vanessa love Paulie and think continually of his future needs.

The investigation is a gritty draining process. A book about a child killer hunt has a distressing and cruel theme. While never losing sight of the dreadfulness of the killings Marlborough Man is not a depressing book.

Carter skillfully involves Maori characters, Maori culture and the Maori language into the story.

The geography of the setting on the north edge of the South Island is important to the plot.

There are more bodies falling than I thought needed for the telling of the story. There was already abundant drama from the investigation in to the child killings and Chester's life. 

Carter has the knack of the best crime fiction writers in drawing readers deeply into the story. I consider Marlborough Man a strong candidate for winning the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Fiction.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Mike and Kaja's Wedding

Sharon and I have just returned from Calgary. We attended the wedding of our son, Michael, and his fiancée, Kaja. They were married on a hot sunny summer morning at her parents acreage. It was wonderful. We are proud to have another daughter-in-law. They sent us the two photos below. I thought they looked great and wanted to share them on the blog. I am happy they agreed.





For Moira and other interested readers a bit of information on Kaja's belt and Michael's shoes.

Kaja's belt was taken from the hem of a sari. Kaja lived in India for a period of time

Mike's shoes are red and black Magnanni Vada Brogued Whole Cut Shoes as best seen on the photo below.



Friday, August 10, 2018

My Choice for Winner of the 2018 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Following a personal tradition I have read the shortlist for the 2018 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and posted reviews of the individual book and will now put forward my choice for winner.

The shortlist was composed of:

1.) Proof by C.E. Tobisman;
2.) Testimony by Scott Turow; and,
3.) Exposed by Lisa Scottoline.

The actual winner was Proof by C.E. Tobisman.

I completed reading the books on the shortlist earlier this week. All were good books.

It does seem that the “thrillerization” of American crime fiction now includes legal mysteries. All three books had distinct elements of the thriller in their plots. At times each of the lawyers was far from the courtroom in their actions.

In considering which book I thought should have won the Award I look at the key Award criterion which sets out the Award is to go “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.

Proof is the story of Caroline Auden, a solo practitioner in Los Angeles who engages in a quest to prove a huge charitable organization, Oasis, is engaged in systemic elder abuse.

The press release announcing the winner said with regard to Proof:

‘The Selection Committee praised the novel for advancing Lee’s legacy and her charge to award legal fiction that shows how lawyers can change society.

“‘Proof’ best captures the spirit of iconic characters, role of the legal profession in addressing social issues, and the concluding legal monologue of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Go Set A Watchman,’ ” Green said. “Caroline Auden is the perfect cross between lawyer Atticus Finch and the grown up Scout.”

It was very interesting to read of Auden’s computer skills in doing research for evidence and how she lived on the streets of Los Angeles with her Uncle Hitch when a killer was searching for her.

With regard to law Auden’s cause in challenging elder abuse is righteous but I struggle with her “role” as she engages in computer hacking in her good cause. I accept lawyers breaking the law can create dramatic legal fiction but I do not think such conduct “best illuminates the role of lawyers in society”.

Further if the power of lawyers “to effect change” comes from breaking the law we are on our way to ending “The Rule of Law” so painfully constructed over the last 800 years.

And what is the purpose of the oaths for lawyers being admitted to practice law in which they swear to uphold the law if they gain praise and reward for breaking the law?

Testimony by Scott Turow featured a middle aged mid-American male lawyer, Bill ten Boom, who joins the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He has been chosen to investigate the alleged mass murder of 400 Roma in Bosnia long after the end of the cruel war that divided that nation.

In his position he illustrates the role of lawyers in seeking to impose justice through an international court which will try those who have committed crimes against humanity.

Can lawyers and judges deter the next megalomaniac dictator from committing mass murder? I liked Boom’s reply to that question:

"How's this, Goos? I know this much: Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting victims be heard. But consequences are essential. People can't believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make wrongs right. Allowing the slaughter of four hundred innocents to go unpunished demeans the lives each of us leads. It's that simple."

If we are to strive for a world that has accountability for state mass murder we need such lawyers and judges.

In Exposed by Lisa Scottoline her counsel, Mary DeNunzio, commences a lawsuit against a company which has fired an employee with a desperately ill daughter. The company is seeking to contain its health insurance costs by ridding itself of an employee whose child is bound to bring about increased expense.

Through the court action DeNunzio is attempting to bring change in health coverage for workers by challenging corporations denying health benefits due employees and their families.

Of all the books she is the lawyer most directly attempting to “effect change” for her court action seeks to use a federal statute on disabilities to prevent an employer from firing an employee over health insurance costs.

Of the books I thought Testimony best met the criterion of the “role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”. I would have chosen it for the Award. Proof and Exposed had lawyers, like myself, representing individuals taking on corporations trying to take advantage of people. Testimony had a bigger cause in working to change the world.


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Proof by C.E. Tobisman

Proof by C.E. Tobisman – Caroline Auden is a lawyer unlike any I have read of in fiction or encountered in real life. I know many lawyers afflicted with Auden’s obsessive personality but none who have her hacker level computer skills. For most lawyers computers are research and word processing tools.

Auden is a solo practitioner in Los Angeles. She left a large firm in dark circumstances often referred to in Proof but never clearly stated. I expect the plot of the first book in the series, Doubt, explains what happened to Auden.

As the book opens Auden is dealing with the death of her beloved Grandma Kate at The Pastures Assisted Living nursing home. It falls to Auden to deal with her grandmother’s affairs as her mother Joanne has a manic personality and her Uncle Hitch, after being forced from the L.A. Police Department, has descended into an alcoholic oblivion that has driven him to the streets of L.A.

At the nursing home Auden is shocked when the administrator produces a recent holograph, handwritten, will in which her grandmother has left all her possessions to Oasis, a charitable organization devoted to re-training the lost of society and returning them to self-sufficiency. A caregiver from Oasis advises her that her grandmother wanted to help the good works of Oasis. Still Auden cannot understand why her grandmother would, near the end of her life, would abruptly change her will.

More or less resigned to the will Auden’s attention turns to her grandfather’s watch, a beautiful work of art, but is missing from her grandmother’s room. When Auden finds out a caregiver from Oasis picked it up from the watch repair shop her frustration with Oasis turns to anger.

A bit of investigation determines Oasis is not a registered charity which shields its books from public scrutiny. Auden is convinced Oasis, through its caregivers, is influencing elderly nursing home residents to make wills in favor of Oasis.

Auden files a lawsuit against Oasis asserting “claims for undue influence, fraud and elder abuse” but gets nowhere in court.

She tries to get the District Attorney’s office to investigate Oasis. There is little interest in pursuing Oasis. Founded by a beloved children’s entertainer, Duncan Reed, and carried on by his son, Simon Reed, connections with establishment Los Angeles abound.

Officially blocked Auden turns to her hacking skills. She secures some suspicious information but far from enough to cause a criminal investigation. Auden rightly has ambivalence about her actions. She is breaching the law in her pursuit of justice. The codes of ethics for lawyers forbid breaking the law.

The consequences of her actions lead to violence that drives Auden onto the streets where she connects with her homeless uncle. Trying not to introduce spoilers into this review I will avoid particulars.

Initially I found Auden going to the streets challenging credibility but what happens among the homeless was inventive and proved to be the best part of the book.

Auden comes to appreciate the society of those cast aside by conventional society or overwhelmed by their private demons.

Among the most vivid characters is the “Mayor” who holds a unique form of leadership among the homeless. A child of wealth he finds the homeless suit him better than his family. He dispenses advice and aids the exchange of favors in a culture without money.

When Auden rather condescendingly describes a man as a schizophrenic who would benefit from medication the Mayor replies:

Schizophrenices are drowning in the same ocean that mystics are swimming in,” Floyd said. “Some are enlightened or touched. Some are just stark raving mad. Some are broken. Some were never whole. Some are sojourning here. Some are just passing through.” He paused. “Which are you?”

I found myself swiftly drawn along by Auden’s journey with the homeless as she pursues her investigation. Auden shows an ingenuity and tenacity consistent with her obsessive nature. Tobisman has an apt and evocative phrase for Auden – she is “a truffle pig for evidence”.

The conclusion is a masterly example of a lawyer inexorably presenting proof.

While there is more violence than usual in legal fiction, real blood does not flow in the courtrooms and law offices of the world, I greatly enjoyed Proof.

It is a challenge to write a great fictional lawyer. Grisham has done it best in over 20 books. Tobisman has created a wonderful lawyer in Auden.

I want to read the next in the series. I hope Tobisman tones down the thriller aspects a little,  emphasizes the impressive legal skills of Auden and includes more scenes like the gift of a carved wooden dove in repose or sleep bearing the inscription:

            “The scars are the places where the light comes in.”