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 20, 2019

The Fourth Courier by Timothy J. Smith

The Fourth Courier by Timothy J. Smith - Poland in 1992 is an unsettled country as it adjusts to the collapse of the Communist government.

FBI agent, Jay Porter, is sent to assist Polish police in investigating the deaths of three men. Traces of radiation have been found on their hands. It is thought they were couriers but what was the radioactive material they transported. It is likely they came from Russia.

Director Basia Husarska is in charge of the investigation. Detective Leszek Kulski is the lead police officer.

All the bodies are found along the Vistula River. Their killer has wanted them found. There is a distinctive slash on the cheek of each victim.

There is little evidence. No one saw the murders. The victims carry no identification. Despite circulating photos around Poland no one has identified them.

Serbian General Dravko Mladic has a dream. With civil wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia he wants to restore Serbia to its historic borders and be the man to lead the nation.

Russian nuclear physicist, Sergej Ustinov, has access to bomb grade uranium, the knowledge to build an atomic bomb and an intense desire to leave the confines of Russia for the freedom of the Western World.

Life in post-Communist Eastern Europe is dreary and chaotic as nations adjust to new politics and a new economy. Money is scarce and the future is filled with uncertainty. Adapting to freedom is difficult.

Mladic is a dangerous zealot ready to use one or more atomic bombs to achieve his dream of a resurgent Serbia led by himself. At the same time he has a conflicted sexuality and enjoys torture.

The home lives of the major characters except Kulski are in turmoil. I wish a few of them could have had average families.

What Smith handles best in the book is treachery. I expected devious characters but was surprised by who was untrustworthy. 

Porter is a clever man who learned some Polish before leaving America and works to add to his knowledge of the language in Poland. He is principled. Personally he left behind a messy marital breakup.

Can Kuksi and Porter find the bomb before it leaves Poland? 

With no one to be trusted and the authorities closing in, the villains are in their own race against discovery.

Tension builds but does not crest. I never felt the danger needed for a thriller. A blurb suggested The Fourth Courier was a book for Alan Furst fans. There was a comparative atmospheric feel of a Furst book but Furst wisely does not write about potential cataclysmic consequences.

The plot was unpredictable. The personal interactions of the characters were predictable.

Several of the interactions and conversations involving members of the American embassy  felt implausible.

The Fourth Courier is a pretty good book.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Our 40th Anniversary!

Sharon and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow. We were married in Humboldt at St. Augustine's with 3 priests (Father Maurice, Father Florian and Father Lawrence) from St. Peter's monastery con-celebrating our wedding Mass. It was a lovely summer day.

To celebrate tonight we went to Nipawin for supper at the Mabel Hill Farm Kitchen and Marketplace. We had a wonderful meal. Our server, Skylar, took the above photo of us.

Mabel Hill is just east of Nipawin. The restaurant is bright and airy. Outside our window there was
outdoor seating on the deck. Had it not been raining it would have been great to have eaten there.

Beyond the deck is a grouping of chairs around a fire pit.

Past the pit is a field of fresh vegetables.

In addition to supplying the restaurant there are pickled vegetables for sale.

We started with an appetizer of a zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and crab and lightly deep fried.

It was beautiful and delicious.

The last time we had a stuffed zucchini blossom was on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean on the island of Rhodes. We walked ashore for a tour that involved cooking at a fish restaurant. Stuffed zucchini blossoms were one of the dishes we prepared.

Tonight's appetizer brought back some nice memories.

We went on to have crab dip for second appetizer. Accompanying the dip was a small salad which included fennel, apple and celery. It was
delicious. We asked for extra crostini.

During the meal we chatted with Mieka, the General Manager. I said the restaurant had the feel of a European country restaurant. At the same time it has the freshness of a new building and the space of Western Canada around the restaurant.

We said we hoped they would consider a tasting menu. Mieka said they have done it on one occasion and may do it again.

For the main course we had a ribeye steak for two that had been dry aged for 38 days. We appreciated that it was pre-sliced.

There was a black garlic aoli sauce for dipping the steak. It was a great match.

To the side of the steak were "maple balsamic dressed greens with soy nuts".

In the bowl were truffle fries. Sharon loved them.

For dessert we had deconstructed
Black Forest cake. The presentation was striking. I thought the cherries were the best.

As we were eating I thought of another rural Saskatchewan restaurant, Rawhide's which is down in Stenen. Both are located in the country. Each features fine food expanding the choices for dining outside Saskatchewan's major cities.

Sharon and I had previously enjoyed a meal Chef Michael Brownlee had prepared at Creekside Orchard in Melfort. He told the diners of his dreams for what has become Mabel Hill. He has succeeded brilliantly.

Sharon and I had a special evening.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Fresh Evidence in Fiction and Real Life

Sophie Weber, in Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito, undertakes the difficult task of winning a criminal appeal in the Swedish court system. 

The challenge is compounded by the lack of legal error in the conduct of the trial.

She is left with establishing the evidence securing the conviction was unreliable. In her thorough review of the file she finds important evidence not presented at trial and evidence that forensic testimony was unreliable. Presenting evidence and attacking an expert are both very difficult on appeal.

As I do not know Swedish criminal law I shall discuss the case in the book using the process that would apply in Canada. I have personal experience in this area from a civil case. The law is essentially the same in criminal law.

To bring evidence to the Court of Appeal not given at trial is to apply to introduce fresh evidence. Such applications are rarely granted.

They are considered on what is often called the Palmer test. In a case involving Walmart the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal set out the four factors from the test that must be met to admit fresh evidence:

“The evidence will not be admitted, if by due diligence it could have been used at trial;
“The evidence must be relevant in the sense that it bears upon a decisive or potentially decisive issue in the action;
“The evidence must be credible in the sense that it is reasonably capable of belief; and,
“ It must be such that if believed could reasonably, when taken with the other evidence adduced at trial, be expected to have affected the result.”

The fresh evidence in the Swedish case was available though buried in the extensive disclosure provided by the prosecution.

In my case involving a question of arson in a claim for insurance coverage the original lawyer for my clients, though he knew samples had been taken from the house, did not check for the results. Had he obtained the results he would have learned there was no evidence of accelerants. My clients had lost the trial with him as their lawyer.

Weber could argue as we did that the trial lawyer did not do his job properly. While appellate courts do not want to be plagued with cases on the competency of trial lawyers there is a sub-factor that in criminal cases the element of “due diligence” is not applied as strictly.

In the Swedish case and my case the second factor was clearly met for the fresh evidence dealt with the decisive issue. In the criminal case it challenged the forensic base for tying the accused to the murder. In my case it challenged the report of an expert who had said the fire was deliberately set though that expert had not considered the negative test results for accelerants in his report.

With regard to the third factor the evidence was in Sweden, as in my case, physical evidence that was reliable.

The fourth factor is met in the Swedish case for, when the fresh evidence is accepted, there is no evidence to tie the accused to the murder. In my case the test results  of the crime laboratory could, in the words of the factor, “reasonably, when taken with the other evidence adduced at trial, be expected to have affected the result” on the cause of the fire.

“Fresh” is a vivid word to use in describing evidence sought to be admitted on appeal that was not part of the trial. I cannot recall any crime fiction featuring a “fresh” evidence application.
Giolito, Malin Persson - (2019) - Beyond All Reasonable Doubt

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito (Translated by Rachel Wilson Broyles) - Teenage Katrin Bjork, her parents away, invites her boyfriend for supper. He arrives interested only in sex. The 15 year old Katrin thinks sex followed by the meal. And then he turns brutal and she is dead.

Over a decade later Sophie Weber’s former law professor, Hans Segerstad, pushes her to take up the appeal of Stig Ahlin who was convicted of killing Katrin. He believes Ahlin is innocent. She is reluctant. It is not the crime. She has dealt with vicious crimes. Her claim she is not ready to take on another pro bono case is insincere. Her real hesitation is that she does not want to lose and such appeals absorb great amounts of time and are rarely successful. Yet the appeal will draw the same intense attention as the trial. Few defence counsel can resist the lure of a big case. When she agrees to look at the file she has actually, though not consciously, made the decision to represent Professor Death.

The story shifts back and forth between the original investigation by Bertil Lundberg and Weber working on the appeal.

The initial investigation struggled to find a suspect. There was no one in Katrin’s life who appeared to be a killer. And then, in the nursing home where Katrin worked part-time, an elderly woman with a wandering memory tells investigators that her son was kissing Katrin. It is a slender clue but it leads the police to look at Ahlin.

He is a very successful 35 year old doctor. At the same time he is arrogant and demanding and expectant that his wishes, demands, will be satisfied. 

Women seek him out sexually. He is not surprised when Katrin wants him. Age is of no concern. He uses her for his own satisfaction.

The investigation examines his personal life and concerns over his relationship with his four year old daughter, Ida. Divorced from her mother he has never been much of a father.

Ahlin maintains he only had a sexual relationship with Katrin and that he never killed her. He protests he never did anything improper with his daughter. Weber is intrigued by the prospect Ahlin is innocent. In an unusual act of legal self-justification she says she will represent him as long as she does not find evidence that he is guilty. She knows it is contrary to legal ethics to so restrict her representation but that is her condition. Her requirement places an unnecessary pressure upon her. It is difficult to know if someone is innocent. Wrongful conviction does not mean innocence. 

Weber commences her review of the case. While the circumstantial evidence should not have been enough to convict Ahlin merely pointing out weaknesses in the evidence will never win an appeal. If not Ahlin than who killed Katrin?

Weber focuses on the teeth marks on Katrin’s body. Forensic analysis identifies them as having been made by Ahlin. Can that analysis be challenged? I wondered at the reliability of an analysis of teeth marks. What analysis had police, prosecutors and experts done of the teeth marks?

She engages in the tedious but crucial process of wading through the mass of documents which are ill organized. Average lawyers skim files for the obviously important documents. It is easy to miss a crucial document in a cursory review.

Weber finds a document that gives her the means to challenge the pivotal evidence. In my next post I will discuss the difficulty of using evidence discovered by the defence after trial.

While the evidence she finds and the new analysis done is strong I thought she still needed a viable potential alternative killer.

It means exploring Katrin’s life. The image at trial was of a wonderful 15 year old. Weber rightly questions the one dimensional view. At that time no one wanted to re-victimize the victim. Laudable in principle avoiding a careful examination of the life of the victim can produce a wrongful conviction as prosecutors and police tunnel in on the accused they believe committed the crime.

Weber’s detailed, sometimes plodding, review of the details provides a startling simple explanation I had not seen, though all the information needed was provided the reader.

It was interesting to read how a Swedish murder appeal is handled. Since the author was a practising lawyer in Sweden I expect she got the procedure correct. Unlike Canada and the U.S. there was no oral argument. It was a paper appeal.

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt is well written and well translated. Giolito captures the grind of reviewing what seem like endless pages of trial evidence and exhibits for an appeal argument. 

Readers seeking a resolution beyond all reasonable doubt will be disappointed. Readers who appreciate complex characters and that ambiguity exists in crime will relish preparing the appeal with Sophie Weber. The ending will leave you in a thoughtful mood. I want to read more by Ms. Giolito.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

My Choice for Winner of the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

For several years I have read the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. I like to review the books and determine my choice for the winner.

This year the short list consisted of:

1.) The Boat People by Sharon Bala;
2.) Class Action by Steven B. Frank; and,
3.) The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey.

It would hard to find three books more diverse in legal fiction. Where last year’s trio all had “thriller” aspects to them none of this year’s selections were “thrillers”.

In considering the book I thought should win the award I like to focus on the 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”.

Class Action saw an unlikely plaintiff for a class action in Sam Warren, a 6th grader in Los Angeles, who takes on the education establishment of America with his legal challenge to homework.

Without a lawyer, his elderly neighbor Mr. Kalman, to file and frame the action Sam would have had no recourse against the tyranny of homework. He asserts that homework is preventing kids from being kids. They are unable to simply play or pursue personal interests.

Lawyers have effected change through actions involving schools. The process of de-segregating America was accelerated by the decision in Brown v. The Board of Education that rejected the principle of separate but equal schools.

Sam has a worthy cause.

The Widows of Malabar Hill delved into women’s issues in Bombay in 1921. The first woman solicitor in the city, Perveen Mistry, is caught up in the drama over an estate to be distributed between the three widows and their children of a Moslem businessman.

Mistry faces discrimination as many are unhappy with a woman becoming a lawyer.

Without preaching Massey deals with cultural issues of women in the early 20th Century in India. The wives were isolated from contacts with males living in a divided home. Mistry, after marrying another Parsi was forced by her in-laws to be in seclusion when she was menstruating.

Mistry was changing society by leading the way for women to be lawyers in colonial India.

While certainly aware of her status as the first woman lawyer in the city she focuses on proving she is a capable solicitor and is committed to the best interests of her clients.

The Boat People was a thought provoking book on the questions of refugees arriving by ocean on the shores of a First World country. In the book 503 Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka after its brutal civil war arrive off the west coast of Canada.

The refugees are interned and put through rigorous vetting by federal adjudicators considering their refugee claims.

The Boat People was unique in fully considering the personalities and issues of claimants, adjudicators and lawyers.

The story of Mahindar and his son, Sellian, was wrenching. Separated on arrival they spend months awaiting a final decision.

Who qualifies as a refugee when documentary evidence is sparse and the claimants are desperate?

Lawyers have long been the defenders of the damned and forlorn. Government ministers, on little evidence, claim there will be Tamil Tigers among the passengers. The claimants, but for a few cannot speak English and have no resources. If they had no lawyers they would be lost in a complex legal process.

The Boat People demonstrated that it is the lawyers representing refugee claimants who are society’s representatives in ensuring there are just hearings preventing arbitrary deportations.

The Boat People was the choice of the judges of the Prize and I agree with them this year. I believe Bala is the first winner not be an American author.

Refugees have been a major legal issue through the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century. For many decades claimants had little chance for legal representation. The Boat People illustrates the importance of lawyers in the refugee process. As well I appreciated the thoughtful portrayals of individuals on all sides of the adjudication process. No one was demonized or mocked who had a contrary view to the author.

Until you stand with a client fighting against the Government of a nation it is hard to understand the weight upon your shoulders as a lawyer.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A First Woman Lawyer to be Admired

In The Widows of Malabar Hill the lawyer at the heart of the book is an Indian legal pioneer. Perveen Mistry is the first woman solicitor in Bombay in 1921. This post may have spoilers for some readers in that it has significant information from the book about Perveen.

It is not a surprise her journey to become a lawyer was difficult. She was constantly bullied as the only woman student at the Government Law School in Bombay in 1915. The book moves between her life at that time and as a young lawyer in the early 1920’s.

The author, Sujata Massey, skillfully blends Perveen’s professional and personal life.
Perveen is a spirited young woman. I appreciated Massey does not try to make her a 21st Century woman. She is religious, respectful of parents and accepting of many limiting social customs. At the same time she is not content to stay at home. Perveen is determined to get an education and have a profession.

For Perveen there is great drama in her life in 2015. In an era of arranged marriages in India Perveen finds a path to marriage that combines the personal and traditional. 
Within every faith there are differences on the traditions to be maintained in marriage. For Perveen the expectation by in-laws of seclusion during menstruation is a great challenge.

Life with her husband turns brutal leading to a court case with her father as her powerful advocate. I could never see myself representing my sons. It would be too hard emotionally let alone the difficulty of being objective.

Eventually Perveen pursues her legal education. Her aspirations to be a lawyer are supported by few beyond her immediate family. It was moving to read of the unwavering and total support of her father, Jamshedji Mistry, for his daughter to become a lawyer and practise law with him. Without his encouragement, even pressure, I doubt she would have persevered against those resistant to a woman becoming a lawyer.

I started law school in 1972. My class at the University of Saskatchewan was the first class in which at least 25% of the class were women. I did not observe the overt bullying experienced by Perveen. I am sure it was not easy but my female classmates helped lead the way for women lawyers in Saskatchewan. Now a majority of law students are women.

Perveen enjoys practising law. She is certainly aware of her professional position as the first woman lawyer in Bombay but never claims status for her accomplishment.
In real life Mithan Tata Lam was the first woman admitted to the Bombay bar. It was 1923.

In Saskatchewan there were three different women who were first in the legal profession.

In 1913 Margaret Burgess was the first woman to be admitted as a student-at-law. In 1917 Mary Cathcart was the first woman admitted to the bar in Saskatchewan. In 1920 Elsie Hall became the first woman to gain a Bachelor of Law degree from the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan.

I admired Perveen as a woman and as a lawyer. She is not perfect. She is very comfortable in her position as a member of the upper classes. Members of the lower classes have little role in her life.

I hope Massey writes a long series with Perveen as the lead character.
Massey, Sujata - (2019) - The Widows of Malabar Hill

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

(39. – 1,010) The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey - One of the most fascinating works of legal fiction I have read.

I was instantly intrigued by the lead lawyer. In 1921 Perveen Mistry is the first female solicitor in Bombay. Working in the family firm her father is going to court and she is handling contracts. Clients and the legal administration are not quite ready to have a woman represent them in court.

The Mistry’s are Parsi. Of Persian origins they are Zoroastrians. Though “Parsis accounted for just 6 percent of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers”.

And then the case. Perveen is suspicious about a letter she has received from Faisal Mukri, who is the estate trustee and household agent for the estate of Omar Farid. He had three wives at his death. I had not anticipated the widows of the title would have shared a husband.

The letter states “that all the widows wanted to give up their assets as donations to the family’s wakf, a charitable trust that provided funds each year to the needy while paying a dividend to specified relatives. While a man or woman certainly could donate wherever he or she desired, wakfs were assiduously monitored by the government in order to prevent fraud, and a sudden infusio of money might be cause for scrutiny.”

Why would they want to give up their assets?

Perveen’s father cannot discuss the letter with the Moslem widows as they will not meet with a man who is not their husband or a close family relative but it is possible for Perveen to talk directly with them.

Meeting with the widows provides insight into the challenges of three wives sharing a home. Beyond internal rivalries they had lived in purdah spending virtually all their time within the house. Now they have an even more cloistered life with their husband gone.

And then Mukri is murdered within the house. The widows and servants are the  obvious suspects. From his treatment of everyone in the house to what he wanted to do with the estate motives abound for killing Mukri.

Farid died without a will. Rigid laws on inheritance create fear and friction.

As a lawyer I was caught up in the challenges presented in the book by differing laws for Indians of that time depending on their faith. Laws, such as divorce law, varies for Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Parsis and possibly other faiths. And then there is English law.

Women are at a disadvantage under all the legal systems. 

Perveen is unusual, not only because she is a professional woman but because she is the friend of the daughter of a prominent English administrator. Perveen and Alice Hobson-Jones attended Oxford together. The friendship creates interesting dynamics as Alice’s father is overseeing the murder case.

The investigation is sensitive. While a killer must be found the British do not want to provoke unrest and possibly riots by Muslim Indians if they do not respect the privacy rights of the secluded women,

questioning them is a challenge. Will they close ranks against the police or will they turn upon one another?

Perveen is the only person with the standing from her sex, her professional status and social connections who can move between all the levels of personal, religious and business societies entertwined in the book.

Life is complicated for wealthy women in colonial India. Even for women not living in purdah they are bound by the traditions of the particular faith of their family and rarely associate with members of other faiths and only socialize within their own communities.

There is an architectural component to the solution that was subtle and vital to the resolution of the case and completely appropriate to the plot.

It is a good mystery with a plausible ending. Perveen finds the solution but it does not involve her legal skills. The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a series. I hope subsequent books more fully use the legal talents of Perveen.

With so many laws covering the same areas it would have been intriguing to be a lawyer in the Bombay of the 1920’s. I thought there must have been many conflicts over which law would prevail when the opposing parties were of different faiths. Which law has priority?

Perveen is such a great character my next post will be about her.