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, November 11, 2018

"Why" in Scrublands

As I read Scrublands by Chris Hammer I thought about why I was so caught up in the plot. I realized it was because the plot is focused on a favourite theme of mine in crime fiction. Scrublands is about “why”.

As set out in the opening to my review of the book in my last post Martin, who has come to Riversend to write a year after follow up on the murders by the local priest Byron Swift, finds himself in the midst of a different story. Mandalay (Mandy) Blonde cannot understand why Swift killed five men outside his church Sunday morning.

There is no “who” or “how” to be determined in Scrublands. Those questions at the heart of many mysteries are resolved before the end of the second page. But there is not a bit of “why” to the murders for even for those who lived in Riversend.

A year later Mandy is still haunted by “why”. She is not alone in being troubled by the lack of “why”. It is as an irresistible question for me as it is for Martin.

Through my life “why” has fascinated me. I expect I plagued my parents as a boy with constant questions of “why”.

I know that as a sports columnist it is my favourite question. Why was a certain play called? Why did a play succeed or fail? Why was a player in or out of the lineup?

As a lawyer when a client, whether facing a criminal charge or a civil suit, comes to the office I want to know the “why” of the facts told to me.

Thus in reading crime fiction I am invariably intrigued when “why” is at the heart of a novel.

When I spoke at the book launch of Volume 3 of A Literary History of Saskatchewan about my essay on crime fiction I told the gathering that one of the reasons I love crime fiction is because so many fine works in the genre delve into the “why” of the murder.

There is good reason, in fiction and in real life, to doubt someone has commited murder without a reason to kill.

Even as Martin learns more and more facts about Swift and the residents of Riversend the “why” of the killings is frustratingly elusive.

You would think it should be obvious. Police, except for the local officer, were content with the explanation that Swift killed for a reason related to his alleged molestation of children. Yet “why” would he kill to protect himself from wrathful parents or outraged community members when he could simply have left town,

Were it one or two killed the “why” may have related to unknown personal conflicts but there were five.

Potentially more promising was Swift’s mysterious past but “why” would problems in his life before Riversend, whatever they might be, have caused him to kill five local men.

I appreciate not everyone wants to know “why”. I have seen readers and bloggers express disinterest, even disdain, for the “why” of a murderer, especially a serial killer.

Some years ago I read an absorbing book, Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. In that book he explored 20 people who had sought to explain the “why” of Hitler’s decisions. Some explored “why” the innocent baby Hitler, as shown on the cover photo of the book in this post, had grown up to be one of history’s worst mass murderers.

Among the those covered in the book were two who took starkly different positions on “why”.

Claude Lanzmann, the creator of the acclaimed documentary Shoah, fiercely asserted there should no attempt to explain Hitler. He dogmatically states it is obscenity to try to understand:

“…. Why are the Jews being killed? Because there is no answer to the question of why.” Because, in other words, any answer begins inevitably to legitimize, to make “understandable” that process.

Lanzmann refers often to a remark by an Auschwitz guard – “Here there is no why”. He objects to even discussing “why”.

Auschwitz survivor Dr. Louis Micheels, the subject of a thinly veiled attack by Lanzmann, simply and eloquently argues in favour of “why”:

He explains the remark was accurate in Auschwitz, a world so “different and so foreign …. another planet, light-years away. It was inhabited by creatures that had little if anything in common with what we consider human beings …”

Micheels continues:

“However, in the civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned, there should be – da soll ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth is most important, could be lost again.”

“Da soll ein warum sein”: There must be a why.

On “why” with regard to murders, whether singular or serial or mass, I will always wants to know “why”.

I was glad there was a “why” in Scrublands. As to the “why” revealed I was satisfied.
Hammer, Chris - (2018) - Scrublands

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Scrublands by Chris Hammer

(38. – 968.) Scrublands by Chris Hammer – What an opening. As journalist Martin Scarsden visits with lovely young bookstore owner, Mandalay “Mandy” Blonde she seeks to convince him that local priest, Byron Swift, did not kill five people outside his Church on a Sunday morning because he had been a pedophile. She is certain because he cared:

     Martin doesn’t know what to say.   
     He sees the passion on her face, 
     hears the fervor in her voice. But a 
     mass murderer who cared?

Martin is in Riversend, a small town in Australia, suffering from prolonged drought. As in The Dry by Jane Harper the Australian heat dominates the setting of Scrublands.

It is a year after the killing and his editor has assigned him to write a follow up story on how the town is coping.

Martin is 40 years old, acutely conscious of the physical signs of middle age in face and hands, and haunted by the memories of being almost killed in the Gaza Strip where he spent 3 days in the trunk of a car.

In a town uninterested in talking to any journalist he is gifted a Page One story. In his first interview on the killings the local police officer, Robbie Haus-Jones, tells Martin about rushing to the Church after the shooting and confronting the priest and killing him when he raises his rifle and fires at Haus-Jones.

Seeking local colour on the town a year after the shooting he interviews a shabby Harley Snouch, drinking cheap port in a boarded up wine saloon. Such saloons were drinking places for men who were WW I veterans:

They were all over the place, these wine saloons, in the bush and in the cities. Every country town had one. It was different in those days. No Medibank, no Medicare, no cheap medicine. They self-medicated. It weren’t no table wine they served in wine saloons, it was plonk: flagon port and cooking sherry and home-stilled spirits. Nasty, cheap, and effective. This is where they came, the walking ghosts who weren’t welcome in the Commercial fucken Hotel.

Ready to leave Martin is drawn into the life of the community by stepping up to assist community members in a pair of emergencies.

The second involves a bush fire in the Scrublands, an area of wasteland near Riversend. In one of the most compelling scenes I have read in a long time he is caught, with two other men, in a house as the fire sweeps up to and into the house. It is terrifying.

Gradually he learns why the police are being so forthcoming to a journalist.

Swift’s penchants for shooting, drinking, telling dirty jokes and smoking marijuana are incompatible with his position as an Anglican priest. Gradually Martin learns Swift’s pre-Riversend personal history is far more complicated than he had anticipated.

The police, the journalists and the residents are battered by the revelations unleashed when Martin strives to find the answer to the “why” of Swift’s actions. My next post will explore “why”.

When more bodies are found he is at the forefront of a story riveting the nation of Australia. He is riding the crest of a journalist sensation that can return him to fame and even possibly fortune. Yet what will be the costs to personal relationships he has established in Riversend. For his help in two emergencies he has become trusted by the residents.

As information comes his way Martin becomes challenged by ethics. What is ethical as an investigative reporter comes into conflict on what is ethical in personal relationships. Should a journalist play God in telling but some of the truths of a story?

Hammer writes of journalists with such feel for them and the details of their reporting that I knew he had been a journalist before reading of his personal history.

The shifts in the story throughout the book are not so much twists or surprises. They are the unfolding of an intricate, clever and absorbing plot. I was reminded of the complex driving plot being revealed as I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Hammer's skill drew me deeply into the community and people he created. It takes great talent to provide such drama with, what seems, a casual ease.

Scrublands is a strong contender for my Bill’s Best Fiction of 2018. 

Already a great success in Australia I forecast Scrublands is about to sweep onto the bestseller lists of North America. After it is published in Canada and the U.S. in January Hammer had best be ready for a torrent of attention is about to descend upon him.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Killer Heat by Linda Fairstein

I am behind in writing posts so decided to post a review of Killer Heat from a decade ago before I started writing the blog.

It was the first of two books I have read by Linda Fairstein featuring Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Alexandra Cooper. The second was Terminal City which I reviewed in 2015. Below the review I have some further comments. 
23. - 433.) Killer Heat by Linda Fairstein – Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, Alexandra Cooper, is wrapping up the prosecution of a serial rapist who is being retried 30 years after a hung jury in his first trial. Suddenly she is called to a building on the waterfront where a part-time hooker specializing in SM has been found. Circumstances get more serious when a second young woman is found dead. Both have been sexually assaulted and tortured. Alex is intimately involved with her favourite police detectives in the investigation. They look at a stereotypical Irish pub owning family, the Dylans (essentially portrayed as a caricature) and their relationships with the women. A third murder and they are searching for a serial killer. Information leads them to the historic military islands around New York City. (There are interesting historical tidbits.) A plausible surprise tip breaks the case. It was hard for me to believe ADA’s get so directly involved in police investigations. Overall it was well plotted but I found the heroic portrayals of police and prosecutors overdone. There is no recognition of any flaws. It is too hard for a defence counsel to accept the righteous tone. Alright. Paperback. (June 7/08)
I think Fairstein is a good writer but I wish Ms. Cooper acted more like a lawyer than a police investigator. In both books she is far more involved in the actual investigations than is credible.

The two books do feature aspects of New York City that are little known to non-residents. In Killer Heat islands that were / are military bases are important. Terminal City refers to the sprawling Grand Central Terminal which has, among its many quirks, parked in a tunnel an armoured train used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If I can get by in my mind Cooper being more police officer than lawyer I may read more in the series. 

Fairstein, Linda – (2008) - Killer Heat; (2015) - Terminal City and The Mystery of FDR's Armored Train and Grand Central Terminal; Paperback

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Naked Truth by Rick Pullen

(37. – 967.) Naked Truth by Rick Pullen – Chief Justice of the United States Nino Castiglia is a vigorous 78 years old on the opening page. Having enjoyed sex with a beautiful young woman he is dead before the end of the page.

Castiglia had been deep in the heart of Texas for an intimate gathering of the rich and powerful.

The next morning investigative reporter, Beck Rikki, is impatiently waiting for Castiglia to arrive for a breakfast meeting. The owner of the resort takes him to the room of the Chief Justice where they find him dead.

While alone with the body for a short time Beck takes with him a sample of the water from the tank in Castiglia’s CPAP machine. Having used a CPAP machine for several years because of my own sleep apnea I am very familiar with the CPAP machines. I would never have thought of them as a potential murder weapon. Such is the mind of the crime fiction writer.

I was reminded of Gail Bowen finding inspiration in another container of water to start writing her Joanne Kilbourn mystery series. Bowen had seen a carafe of water sitting on a flatbed trailer for the real life Premier of Saskatchewan at a political event. She thought it nice she lived in a country where the Premier’s water could be left unattended and then she thought what if it was poisoned and a crime fiction career began.

Back to Naked Truth, a short time later in a surreal scene, Cinderella Rivera (what an amazing name), local justice of the peace, after hearing the comments of the County Sheriff, pronounces Castiglia dead of natural causes.

Beck, with the inherent suspicion of an investigative reporter, has no evidence to think there was murder but why had the Chief Justice’s voice been stilled hours before he was to meet with Rikki to do the interview the Chief Justice had requested.

Beck was hoping the interview would help him get a position with a newspaper or magazine. He had been terminated some months earlier from the Washington Post-Examiner for conflict of interest. He had used information for a story from his current lover / partner, Geneva. While in love with Geneva he is not ready to commit to permanence.

Geneva is another memorable character in that she eschews clothes unless out in public. With the money to have a beach retreat and a penthouse in Washington D.C. she has the freedom to be nude.

Why would the Chief Justice be killed? His vices are private. He is well liked. He is strongly conservative.

Nino Castiglia appears to be inspired by the late American Supreme Court Justice, Antonin “Nino” Scalia who was very conservative, of Italian background, gregarious and died at a hunting retreat in Texas of a heart attack.

As Beck pursues the investigation there is mention of a circle. Is there a conspiracy behind the death of Castiglia?

As I read I thought of other murdered Supreme Court Justices. It was The Pelican Brief by John Grisham where two Justices are murdered and a Washington investigative journalist is a pivotal player in unraveling the conspiracy that committed the killings. In The Pelican Brief the motive for murder was not political but to arrange sympathetic judges before the Court hears a specific case.

Assaulted and warned to quit his investigation Beck is not deterred. He proceeds down a twisty road in his investigation including the Vice-President and the President.

I thought Naked Truth was a good book. The characters are interesting, even memorable. I did not find the conspiracy convincing. It is difficult to create good conspiracies though real life America appears consumed by conspiracies in 2018.

The conspirators turning on each other challenged the strength of the conspiracy.

There is a law firm at the heart of the conspiracy. Grisham in another book, The Firm, created a memorably crooked law firm. In the Naked Truth the structure of and relationships within the firm did not feel quite right.

The best part of the conspiracy was its unexpected purpose. I had not anticipated their goal and I doubt any reader will realize their intention before it is revealed.

The twists come fast and furious but became too many for me. I was reminded of some of the Lincoln Rhymes books of Jeffery Deaver when he just cannot stop adding twists. As the end of Naked Truth neared I was twisted into disbelief. A few less contortions and it would have been a great book. I will remember the wonderful characters and a surprising conspiratorial scheme. I did enjoy the book.